Most of the children go home for Christmas, but Meyer and Ida volunteer to serve lunch to those staying at the Golden Age so the nurses can have the day off. Frank is worried that his parents will embarrass him by acting foreign or criticizing Australia. He wishes Elsa could stay, but her father picks her up in the morning. Frank watches Jack hovering over her and knows that she must be frustrated by his pity.
Perhaps because the Golds have survived so many challenges before, Frank’s parents don’t coddle or pity him the way many others, including Elsa’s parents, do their children. Although Frank is frustrated by his parents’ inability to conform to Australian society, Elsa’s awkward interaction with her father serves to highlight the mutual understanding that exists among the Golds.
Even though Warren Barrett finds it hard to understand why the Golds don’t celebrate Christmas, the lunch goes off well. Meyer entertains everyone by exaggerating his own accent and Ida plays Christmas carols on the piano. Meyer finds this new and unusual celebration strange, but not unpleasant.
Even though the Golds do “act foreign,” as Frank feared, they’re immediately popular at the Golden Age, showing that, contrary to Frank’s convictions, they can (at least sometimes) belong in Australian society without giving up their European personalities.
Sister Penny has Christmas lunch with Elizabeth Ann at the house of her friend, Gillian. Sister Penny has never seen her daughter so happy and confident, but she feels left out by the family jokes she doesn’t understand and the general indifference to her presence. Sister Penny immediately recognizes that Elizabeth Ann is in love with Gillian’s older brother, Tim. Saying she’s needed at the hospital, Sister Penny leaves early.
While Frank is feeling unexpectedly close to and pleased with his parents, Sister Penny feels a new distance from her daughter as Elizabeth Ann seeks out the conventional family life Sister Penny has so determinedly eschewed. While Sister Penny seems consummately at home in the hospital, her unease here demonstrates that she too experiences feelings of isolation.
Returning to the Golden Age, Sister Penny is inexplicably pleased to see Meyer. She feels that he’s much like here and that “nothing escapes him.” Ida plays Mozart before bed to general delight. Frank is relieved to see his mother on the piano, because for once she’s relaxed, in command, and not paying attention to him. When she plays piano it doesn’t seem to matter that they are a family of refugees in a foreign country.
Sister Penny and Meyer’s mutual attraction underscores the similarities in their character; both often seek out solitude, but (most recently Sister Penny) worry about feeling isolated in situations that should make them happy. It’s important to note that what Frank respects most about his mother is her vocation, both because he’s beginning to share her passion for art and because when she’s at the piano he can appreciate her without feeling stifled by her.
Sister Penny, who rarely rests or listens to music, is struck by Ida’s excellence, which reminds her of her own instinctive skills as a nurse. She immediately decides that Ida must be persuaded to do a benefit concert for the hospital.
Sister Penny’s observation is a reminder that the novel doesn’t just value artistic vocations, but rather uses the glamour and aesthetic beauty of art to imbue all work with value and dignity.
Like most of the children returning in the evening, Elsa is exhausted and incommunicative. When the children go home they’re reminded that family life has gone on without them, that their siblings are playing with their toys or sleeping in their rooms. Some are frustrated by their parents’ unconcealed pity, while Malcolm Poole is overwhelmed by his father’s insistence that he should be walking by now. Only Albert Sutton, the coddled youngest of six children, is reluctant to leave his family. When he cries, his oldest sister picks him up and dances him around the ward until he calms down.
While they’re at the hospital, the children spend their time waiting for their mothers to visit and pining for home. The holiday reminds them, however, that the family life they’re returning to is much different from the one they left behind. This phenomenon, and the feelings of isolation it causes, are very similar to Ida and Meyer’s feelings about their expulsion from Hungary—forming another link between the two main challenges the characters have to survive.
At night, Frank goes to visit Elsa. By now he’s unused to spending a day without her; he has no one else with whom to share his feelings, or with whom he feels truly at home. Frank sits on Elsa’s bed and she tells him that he’s lucky not to have siblings. When he asks why, Elsa tells her onset story.
Frank thought he’d never feel at home in the Golden Age, but now he doesn’t like when its routines are interrupted for a day. However, no matter how happy he’s become to linger in the environs of childhood, the fact that his happiness rests on Elsa is a reminder that he’s no longer quite a child.
Before polio, Elsa had tennis lessons; her sister Sally was annoyed by this, because she wanted to play tennis too but instead had to watch baby Jane. During one lesson, Elsa felt sick and trudged home; when she reached the driveway, she collapsed on top of her bike. Sally came over and shouted that Elsa was late and that it was her turn to watch Jane. Enraged that Elsa didn’t respond, Sally kicked her over and over, until the neighbor, Mrs. Hoffman, pulled her away and saw that something was seriously wrong.
Elsa’s strained relationship with her sister makes her closeness to Margaret even more notable. It’s also a reminder to Frank, who’s been comparing himself to Sullivan’s seemingly perfect life, that even the native Australians he tries to emulate have as many familial issues as he does.
After Elsa tells her story, she and Frank sit in silence. Suddenly, Frank kisses her. Then, he returns to the Boys ward and starts writing in his prescription pad. Even though he’s devoted to Elsa, he feels some sympathy for Sally, whom he sees as “the unfavorite,” just like he often is.
Frank is most overcome by Elsa when he’s most aware of how different she is from him–for example, when he likens himself to the antagonistic Sally. This is a notable contrast to Frank’s frequent frustration with his mother, despite the fact that they’re very similar; it suggests that Frank is struggling to respect and embrace his own character.
When Meyer and Ida return home, Ida asks what he thinks of Sister Penny. Meyer equivocates, not wanting to admit that he feels drawn to her. Even though he loves and is faithful to Ida, he’s fundamentally private about his feelings and feels its within his purview to be attracted to other women. Ida is depressed that they celebrated Christmas in a polio hospital, but Meyer insists it was a good day.
It’s notable that Meyer maintains an emotional distance from everyone in his life, even his wife. In this respect, he’s very similar to his son, even though they have largely divergent personalities.