Meanwhile, Margaret has been briskly caring for Elsa at home, diligently massaging her muscles every afternoon. Her neighbors congratulate her on Elsa’s return home, but she still resents them for shunning her family when Elsa first contracted the disease. Nowadays, Margaret no longer trusts her neighbors or hospitals or even God. The one thing on which she relies is her love for Elsa.
Elsa and Margaret have had their spats, but their relationship has survived polio and emerged even stronger. While polio is a terrible test for many of the novel’s parents, it also helps them grow and reaffirm their devotion to their children.
This is what has finally given Margaret the strength to stand up to Nance. Nance has decided that since Elsa is disabled and furthermore not to be trusted around boys, she must go to a girls’ secretarial school. She says loudly that Elsa isn’t likely to ever get married. This is the last straw for Margaret, who announces that Elsa will go to university and become a doctor, just as she’s always wanted.
Before Elsa got, sick Margaret would never have confronted her sister-in-law. As such, this episode shows that Margaret, too, has grown as a result of polio. She also shows a touching confidence in Elsa’s ability to pursue a career that will be demanding not just for a disabled person but for any woman of her era.
Returning to her messy home from the neat and organized Golden Age, Elsa is overwhelmed. Her family’s constant talking and complaining, and Margaret’s anxiety to please everyone, make her exhausted. Jack has converted the back verandah into a room so Elsa can have space to herself, and she frequently retreats there for privacy. She feels her life is like “a tiny ship on a great ocean.”
At the beginning of the novel, Frank scornfully compared the Golden Age to a tiny island. Now, both he and Elsa are discovering that the sheltered life on the “island” is in many ways more manageable than on the “great ocean” of the real world, where they feel both crowded by their families and isolated from each other.
Meanwhile, Sally is unhappy because she has to share her room with Jane. She contrives never to be home, riding Elsa’s bike around the neighborhood or playing tennis loudly in the driveway.
Sally’s behavior poignantly contrasts her physical strength with her sister’s immobility. By showing her tactlessness, it also highlights the thoughtfulness and sensitivity Elsa has developed during her time at the Golden Age.
Like the Golds, Elsa’s parents aren’t angry about her expulsion; they love her too much. However, they didn’t fight the decision either, and Elsa realizes how much “they cared what other people thought.” She misses Frank, because he’s the only person in her life who ever speaks openly about feelings. At night, she recounts the events of her day as if she’s talking to him.
Like Frank, Elsa realizes that her parents are powerless to protect her not only from the physical ravages of polio, but from social expectations. While Frank can’t do this either, he’s the only person in her life who openly flouts such conventions; by being with him, she’s developed a broader mode of thinking too.
One day, Elsa surveys herself in her parents’ big mirror. She’s too thin and her entire body is lopsided. Once, people used to comment on how pretty she was, but now she knows they’ll always whisper about her disability.
Even while Frank draws confidence from Elsa’s beauty, she can’t help comparing herself to the girl she once was.
Elsa dreams that she’s on the verandah looking at the street. A long line of children hurries down the street, following each other, and a little boy runs anxiously alongside the procession. Elsa knows the little boy represents Sally, and that Sally now feels the responsibility for the family that used to be Elsa’s.
Even though Sally might not have realized it, Elsa knows she is growing into the caretaker role that Elsa occupied before her illness. Meanwhile, polio has somewhat liberated Elsa from her family, forcing her to focus on her own development rather than their happiness.
Shortly afterwards, Elsa is sitting on the verandah when Sally returns home from an errand. The two sisters look at each other for a minute; they haven’t spoken directly in a year. Both feel they might cry. Then Sally goes inside.
It’s important that the sisters don’t have to speak to reconcile. This episode shows how the intimacy that exists between family members persists through even grave ruptures. It also demonstrates the more reserved approach to familial relationships that Elsa is developing as a result of polio.
One day the telephone rings. When Margaret picks up, Ida Gold is on the other end. After a quick conversation, she hangs up and informs Elsa confusedly that the Golds are coming for tea the next day, even though she knows her husband might disapprove. Elsa kisses her mother for the first time since her arrival home.
Just as Ida is acting decisively on Frank’s behalf, Margaret is taking bold steps for Elsa. The impending visit isn’t just a reunion for the children, but a moment of empowerment for their mothers.