Many years later, Elsa’s son Jack II visits Frank in New York. He’s always known about Frank; his mother talked about him frequently and showed old pictures of them together on the verandah of the Golden Age. He looks very different as an old man, much larger and more confident. He’s wearing elegant and bohemian clothes. He has a neat apartment which, to Jack, speaks of “work and solitude.”
As an adult, Frank’s life is defined by the attributes he was beginning to develop as a child: his devotion to poetry and his desire for solitude. His New York apartment and sense of ease shows that he’s been able to integrate these unusual and potentially isolating characteristics into a rich and satisfying life.
As he notes that Jack II’s hair is the same color as Elsa’s, Frank is surprised to learn she’s named her son after her father. Jack tells him that Elsa has recently retired from medicine. He’s the youngest son and they’ve always been close, especially since they both love to read. The family lives by the beach, close to where Elsa grew up. Even though she can no longer walk or swim as she used to, Elsa is determined not to be carried or helped. She spends much of her time watching the ocean from a small tower her husband built for her. She’s very tough, and her sons call her E.B., the initials of her maiden name.
Elsa was sad during the field trip to the sea because she thought she’d never be able to enjoy it as she used to. Contrary to expectations, she did, at least temporarily, recover the physical strength she longed for. Moreover, she maintained the mental fortitude she developed during childhood. Her nickname suggests that unlike her mother, she’s not subsumed in her marriage and has carved out an independent life for herself.
Jack II tells Frank that once he was running on the beach when he saw Elsa struggling up the dunes. He knew that he couldn’t help her or even acknowledge that he saw her, but by the time she reached the top, exhausted, he was near tears.
This moment mirrors Margaret’s experience watching Elsa helplessly through the window of the Isolation Ward. In both episodes, intense familial devotion is balanced against respect for the independence Elsa both needs and craves.
Frank has just published his latest book and was flattered to receive an interview request from an online Australian literary journal. As it turns out, the journal was founded by Jack II, who is also an admirer of Frank’s poetry. Frank has always sent copies of each collection to Elsa, although she rarely writes him.
Although Frank and Elsa have lived lives very distant from each other, it’s interesting that Frank shares his passions with her son. Elsa and Jack’s devotion to reading indicates the influence that this friendship has had over her adult life.
Jack II asks what happened between Frank and Elsa. Frank says that he trained as a teacher and worked for a while in a remote part of Australia before moving to New York. Meanwhile, Elsa studied medicine in Adelaide and got married. Shortly after Frank moved to New York, both his parents died in quick succession, and were buried in Australia.
Frank doesn’t really answer the question, instead providing some fairly superficial details about his life. While very hospitable to Elsa’s son, he insists on the emotional distance he’s always cultivated in his close relationships.
Next, Jack II asks about the title of Frank’s most recent collection, “The Golden Age.” He thinks this is a painful name for a book about children struggling with polio. Frank ignores this and instead announces he’s just published a book about Sullivan Backhouse, including all his poetry and an essay by Frank about their brief friendship and his introduction to his vocation. Frank says he’s still trying to finish “On My Last Day on Earth.”
Frank’s work makes clear that he’s still very much influenced by the events of his childhood–in one sense, this period is a “golden age” because it’s held so much sway over the rest of his life. He’s also deeply loyal to Sullivan, despite the brief nature of their friendship.
Frank tells Jack II that “The Golden Age” is a kind of sequel to “The Trains,” his most famous poem. His last collection is both an “answer” and a “counter” to it.
These two poems are obviously references to the two challenges Frank survived as a child. It’s finally clear that, rather than compounding his suffering during the Holocaust, polio and his time at the Golden Age were what helped Frank recover from and move past the suffering of his early childhood.
Frank was inspired to write “The Golden Age” when he had to take charge of Edie, the daughter of a friend who was hospitalized for several months. At first he was annoyed to sacrifice his solitude and routine for a child, but soon discovered he loved taking care of her. The experience made him realize how easy it is to love children even if they’re not one’s own, and it reawakened his memories of the Golden Age and the unstinting affection of the staff there. He says that polio is like love: “years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.”
Although Frank has lived largely alone, it’s clear that he’s not isolated or cut off from the world. Moreover, unlike some of the adults who surrounded him as a child, he’s sensitive to and respectful of the special consciousness of children. This is exactly the kind of sensitivity that pervades the narrative, marking a connection between the tone of the novel and the character of its protagonist.
Soon, Jack II leaves to catch his plane. To Frank, his eyes look like Elsa’s, and Frank thinks there’s nothing he won’t learn to understand. Jack thinks that he won’t see Frank again; the old man looks very frail. Once Jack leaves the building, Frank hurries the window to watch his gold hair disappear into the crowd outside.
The novel closes with a bittersweet parting and reference to Jack’s gold hair; it’s a reminder that, just like Frank’s time at the Golden Age, “golden” moments aren’t unequivocally happy, but rather characterized by depth, intimacy, and growth.