"The joy and pain of growing up came to each of us in different ways, but no one endured the experience alone. And so it was when Mary Ellen tried her first searching steps away from her childhood. It was a time of joy and pain for her and for the rest of us as well".
John-Boy drives with Jason to Ike’s store. They talk about Mary Ellen’s first steps at becoming a nurse as they enter the store. Ike wonders why she is in the store all the time, and they say she is expecting graduation presents. Ike tells then that a letter has arrived for “Miss Mary Ellen Walton” from the University of Virginia; School of Nursing; Charlottesville, Virginia. Ike says there is also a package for John from Richmond, and another package for Miss Nora Taylor, the public health nurse, from the Center Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. Ike says Nurse Nora’s package has been there for a while because she is at the Basham place treating someone sick. John-Boy offers to deliver the package to her. Ike says that if anything looks like a graduation present, he will personally deliver it to Mary Ellen. Back home the boys find Jim Bob checking to make sure Mary Ellen doesn’t get near the mill. John and Grandpa are working on the trunk for Mary Ellen, only needing the handles that are on order. They are happy to find that John-Boy has picked them up at Ike’s. Jason says the trunk looks “snazzy”. As Ben walks in Grandpa says the handles look prettier than in the catalog.
John-Boy walks inside to see Olivia and Grandma redoing an old suitcase for Mary Ellen. He shows them the letter. Jim Bob loudly says hello to Mary Ellen so they know she is approaching. Olivia rushes the suitcase up to John-Boy’s room where they try to find a safe place for it. Mary Ellen calls out to her mother to come down so she can read the letter to her. They find that she will take the entrance examinations at the nursing school, and can stay overnight. Elizabeth blurts out that she’ll need a suitcase (realizes her mistake) and says, “or at least a sack or something”. Mary Ellen begins to search for the old suitcase, and Olivia scolds Elizabeth for what she said. John-Boy convinces Mary Ellen to go with him when he delivers the package to Nurse Nora so she can tell her the news.
They ride Old Blue to the Basham place where they talk about the difficulties of college. Mary Ellen says she just wants to see the world off of the Mountain. Lair Basham is sitting with a bandaged left foot. Nora comes outside to say that she is treating his daughter-in-law, Essie, for a rheumatic heart condition. Mary Ellen tells Nora she will soon be taking her nursing exams. As they leave, the little Basham girl, Sue, asks why the mule’s name is Old Blue when he is white. John-Boy says that they tried to find a blue one, but “they are scarce in these parts”.
Mary Ellen and Erin hunt unsuccessfully for the suitcase. Grandma tells Erin to tell her sister that the suitcase might be in the barn (and dream up any excuse to keep her away from the house), so they can gather up the family for her party and presents. The girls see Myrtle, Chance, and her calf eating while they search. Grandma opens the cellar door so Grandpa, Ben, and Jason can take the homemade ice cream and other things to the front yard. John and John-boy bring the trunk to the porch. Olivia walks to the porch with a chocolate cake. Grandma yells to Mary Ellen that they’ve found the suitcase. When Mary Ellen arrives, they surprise her. Jason gives her pencils (with large erasers for all of her mistakes) and John-Boy gives her a book about Florence Nightingale (the idol of all the nurses).
Mary Ellen packs her suitcase as Erin begins to take her sister’s clothes out of the dresser. Mary Ellen thinks she should wait until she moves out of the house. Elizabeth walks in with Mary Ellen’s baseball glove. Erin says that she should wait to take the mitt until Mary Ellen actually leaves. Olivia goes out to the front porch to find John thinking about his oldest daughter going out in the world. John remembers when Olivia was worried when John-Boy and Jason first went off, but this time it’s his “baby girl”.
John-Boy takes Mary Ellen to Charlottesville for the examination. She walks to the nurses’ station to sign in at “Registrations”. A nurse shows her where she’ll sleep and introduces her to Joyce Parrish of Richmond. Both girls talk about their anxiousness. At home, Olivia brings sweet cider to John and Grandpa, but finds Ben and Jim Bob working, too. John and Olivia flirt and talk about Mary Ellen being away. Mary Ellen, at the same time, is taking her examination. She has trouble with several questions, and is directed to the admissions nurse. Mary Ellen returns home in tears, unable to complete the test because of not knowing algebra and chemistry. John-Boy finds his sister crying in her room. Mary Ellen says that she feels ignorant, but John-Boy says that no body knows everything. Mary Ellen describes the hospital as the “cleanest, whitest thing you’ve ever saw” and “beautiful simplicity”.
John-Boy helps Mary Ellen with algebra, but isn’t sure he can help with chemistry. They get the idea that Nurse Nora could help because she has taken the test. Later, Mary Ellen walks up to the Basham place to find Violet making food. Mary Ellen starts to straighten up the place. She tells Nora that she needs help with the exam, and is willing to offer her help in exchange. That night, Nora explains what will be and not be covered on the exam. She says that she will need algebra only for the entrance exam. Mary Ellen helps Mrs. Basham, gives the two younger children baths, and tells Violet how helpful she has been to them.
Nora tells John and Olivia how helpful Mary Ellen has been to her. John wonders if nursing is right for Mary Ellen, but Nora says that Mary Ellen will decide for herself. John decides to take some food and supplies up to the Basham place. John-boy writes in his journal: “There is a lot of activity around here today. Daddy and I are talking some supplies up to the Basham’s. Miss Nora is making her rounds up in the hills, so Mary Ellen is alone up there taking care of Mrs. Basham. I will stay up here and help in whatever way I can.”
Grandpa says that the ham that they are giving to the Basham’s is from the pig Petunia. As Ben milks Myrtle he has a new idea that will make them a lot of money: grow goats the size of cows to produce ten times more milk. John and John-Boy walk up to Lair Basham and ask if they can have some of his trees in exchange for some “garden truck and ham and such”. John tells Mary Ellen that she looks tired, but she says It’s “a good tired”. Sue, the little girl, walks up and John plays with her. At home, John tells Olivia how grown-up Mary Ellen looked. John says he is bothered by it. Olivia quotes a saying, “A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.” John says that when Mary Ellen gets married the man must be “some kind of a man”.
In the morning, with the Basham children asleep Mary Ellen wakes up to find that Mrs. Basham has passed away. Mary Ellen thinks for a few seconds, and then wakes up Violet. They go outside where Mary Ellen says that morning is a quiet time, a peaceful time. She wants Violet to remember it this way. Mary Ellen tells her that mothers tell their daughters nice and pretty things, and that she should remember those things about your mother when she goes away. Violet realizes her Momma has gone away, but also doesn’t hurt anymore.
Olivia walks in front of the house to see John-Boy and Mary Ellen ride up on Old Blue. John-Boy says the circuit preacher is taking care of matters. He says to Olivia that she would be proud of Mary Ellen. Olivia says, “I am.” Mary Ellen finds Elizabeth home sick from school. She says it’s scary to be away from home, but Elizabeth says that she is the bravest person she knows of. Mary Ellen says that she only talks that way.
"By summer's end Mary Ellen had been accepted at the School of Nursing of the University of Virginia. All of us watched her grow through those difficult weeks as she gathered the knowledge and maturity she needed. At the end of it, Mary Ellen knew that nursing was to be her life, and as long as she pursued it, it was rewarding to her and to everyone who knew her as a nurse and loved her as a person".
Olivia: Erin, was that you?
Erin: There's a cricket in my bed! A big fat cricket!
Olivia: Jim Bob did you put that in Erin's bed?
Erin: Jim Bob....
Jason: It was Grandpa!
Erin: Mary Ellen, I wish I could go away to school with you.
Elizabeth: So do I, I'd have my very own room.
John: Everybody go to sleep!
Erin: I'm gonna get you Grandpa!
John-Boy is a junior at Boatwright University, Jason is a sophomore at Kleinberg Conservatory of Music, and Mary Ellen has been accepted into nursing school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
According to the introductory remarks by Earl Hamner, it’s the end of summer (of 1937).
Ike Godsey (Joe Conley); Nora Taylor (Barbara Eda-Young) Lair Basham (Jon Lorner); Essie Basham (Tamar Cooper); Violet Basham (Shannon Terhune); Sue Basham (Kim Durso); Nurse Jenny Stevens (Charlotte Moore); Nurse Collins (Ann D’Andrea); Nurse Smith (Elizabeth Rogers); Joyce Parrish (Stephanie Siler).