Sister Penny is lying on the couch in her office. All the nurses are back from the dance and she can finally rest, but she can’t stop thinking about Constable Ryan, one of the new policemen who stopped by earlier. She feels that something will inevitably happen with him. Suddenly, there’s a tap at her window, and she sees him there. Sister Penny opens the door; without speaking, but in perfect understanding, he comes in and they make love. Afterwards, Sister Penny quickly gets dressed and Constable Ryan leaves. Neither of them cling to the other.
As a nurse and a caretaker, Sister Penny has appeared up to now impersonal and self-abnegating, although notable for her strong and pleasant appearance. Now, Sister Penny’s own intimate desires come to the fore. Especially in her conservative society, it’s notable that Sister Penny seems completely at ease with her sexuality, fulfilling her sexual needs without making too much of them.
Sister Penny has had many lovers. She feels that they’ve all understood her, knowing that she has no desire for marriage or even a long-term affair, and that her main concerns are her work and her daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Because of this, she feels they meet on equal terms, with a mutual desire for pleasure and joy. After she’s fully dressed, she goes to check on the babies.
Sister Penny’s vocation is much more important to her than achieving a conventional marriage or family. However, she understands that maintaining some romantic life and paying attention to her sexual needs feeds into her vocation, rather than distracting from it.
Sister Penny briefly had a husband, Alan Penny. However, he was killed at the beginning of the war in 1939, when Elizabeth Ann was four. Without the money to keep their own house, Sister Penny and her daughter moved in with Enid, Alan’s mother, an arrangement that lasted long after the war’s end.
Sister Penny’s did once have a conventionally feminine life, which suggests she must have repudiated it for some deliberate reason.
Sister Penny began taking lovers among her patients, many of whom suffered debilitating injuries and had lost faith in society, God, and even their families. She felt they needed her kindness. Later, she became involved with Mervyn, an American soldier. She even considered moving to America to marry him, but he went missing in the Pacific. Later, she had an older lover named Harald, but his death put an end to their liaison.
Sister Penny’s emotional attachment to her first lovers shows her initial ambivalence at pursuing a life outside conventional guidelines for women. However, her ultimate diffidence when these affairs end show that she’s not looking to repeat her first marriage and values her solitude.
Although Sister Penny was discreet, Enid knew about the lovers. In revenge, on her deathbed she bequeathed her house to another relative, even though Sister Penny protested that she and Elizabeth Ann wouldn’t have anywhere to live. By now headed to teachers’ college, Elizabeth Ann boarded with her best friend’s family, and Sister Penny moved to the Golden Age. Mother and daughter now meet every other Saturday and speak on the phone on Wednesday nights.
The bitter breakdown of her relationship with her mother underlines Sister Penny’s inability to fulfill the restrictive role of wife and widow. She’s also not quite at ease in her role as a mother; though she and Elizabeth Ann have parted without qualms on either side, their relationship seems formal and distant.
Although Sister Penny only has a small room now, she’s very content. As a young woman she though she’d quit nursing once she got married, but now she finds her work sustains her more than her brief married life or even her relationship with her daughter. She thinks of herself as a “nomad,” carrying only her few possessions and her professional skills. She feels nursing is an instinct within her; often, she doesn’t even have to think before she makes decisions.
While Enid thought she was punishing her daughter-in-law, she in fact pushed Sister Penny to carve out a modest degree of independence and solitude. Finally leaving her marriage behind, she’s been able to embrace both her vocation and her unconventional romantic life without guilt or apprehension.