Teleplay: John McGreevey.
Story: Earl Hamner.
Director: Philip Leacock.
Music: Arthur Morton
"When we were growing up on Walton’s Mountain, Sundays were very special. Six days a week overalls and sneakers were the family uniform, but on the seventh day, we got out our "Sunday go to Meeting" best, shined and scrubbed and brushed and polished. Getting ready to go to church was as much of a ritual as the services once we got there. I remember one February Sunday that began like any other but ended in the gravest crisis our family ever faced, a crisis that threatened the sheltered life we'd taken for granted and tested our belief in God's mercy".
The family is about ready to leave for church. Erin and Jim Bob look over one of their Mamma’s flowers (finding a bug), while Jason plays his harmonica and John-Boy brings in firewood. Grandma walks in, thinking Olivia looks flushed. When Olivia finds that Jason is playing an original song, she says, “Don’t I have the most talented children!” She tries to convince John to attend church, but he says that maybe he’ll go next week. Grandpa insists he goes “mostly for the music and the singing”. Olivia admires the dress that Mary Ellen is wearing, but Mary Ellen thinks she looks like a scarecrow. The family leaves the house after John-Boy brings the truck up to the house as Grandpa leads the family in singing “Oh Beulah land, sweet Beulah land. Has thou highest mount I stand. I look away across the sea where mountaintops prepare for me.”
After the sermon, the congregation greets Rev. Fordwick. Elizabeth proudly announces that Ben has won another star for memorizing a Bible verse. Both say they want to become preachers. But on the walk to the truck Olivia’s knee gives out, indicating that the strength is out of her legs. Mary Ellen and G.W. Haines are walking home together when G.W. asks Mary Ellen if she will go with him to the eighth grade spring dance. Neither one knows how to dance so G.W. suggest they learn together. Mary Ellen doesn’t like the idea, but agrees to think about it.
Grandma and John-Boy help Olivia into the house, finding Miss Mamie and Miss Emily inside after attending the Episcopal Church. The children remove their boots as the sisters present some mint jelly to Olivia. When Olivia says she is not feeling well and Grandma indicates that she has the “grip”, the sisters depart for home. John becomes concerned after finding out his wife woke up with a backache and a stiff neck. Grandma prepares to make some chamomile tea for Olivia, and as Olivia walks upstairs, her legs give out. John picks her up and carries her into the bedroom. On the floor of the barn the children shuck corn for popcorn. Mary Ellen asks John-Boy if he knows how to dance, prompting him to say that he knows enough to stay off girls’ feet. Suddenly Grandma motions for John-Boy, and quietly tells him to go for Dr. Vance.
As he drives off John-Boy is afraid that his mother is talking out of her head and can’t move her legs. Dr. Vance examines Olivia who is in terrible pain. Downstairs the children play cards. They ask John-Boy to check on their mother’s condition and Grandpa thinks it is a good idea. Upstairs John-Boy finds that his mother has polio, but is told by John not to tell the children. After Dr. Vance leaves, John stays up the night with his wife. Later as he goes for more coffee he asks John-Boy (and Jason) to finish the Halverson timber order. Olivia wakes up to find she can’t feel her legs. She cries out for John, who hears her as he walks up the stairs. She realizes she has polio, but her first concern is for the children. John reassures her that everything is fine.
He goes downstairs and says to the children, “Your Momma is real sick. She has polio.” They don’t really know what polio is, but have seen Marlo, a girl at school, with polio and uses crutches. Knowing that her mother can’t walk, Elizabeth wonders if her mother will use crutches and have wires in her legs. Grandpa reassures the children that President Roosevelt had polio when he was a child, and it didn’t stop him. Elizabeth asks her father why this happened to her mother. John tells her that he doesn’t know, as John-Boy looks on. Back upstairs Olivia wonders how the children took the news. Just then they start to say goodnight to their mother. Olivia says goodnight back to them, but Erin has to be prompted to respond. She seems to be taking the news especially hard.
Several days later, with her favorite plants around her in the room, Grandma comes in with Rev. Fordwick. The Ladies Aid Society has sent him with a signature quilt that among the signatures is: “Get well soon, Evelyn”, “Courage, from Alma”, “Best wishes from Servee”, and “Thinking of you, Merle”. On the way out Rev. Fordwick admits to Grandma that, “I accept His ways. I don’t always understand them.” Later, John-Boy breaks up a fight between Jason and Ben, saying it’s the wrong time for such antics. He also asks Jason where he got the guitar he is playing. Jason says he traded for it, and to stop picking on him. John-Boy also tells Elizabeth to stop sucking on her thumb. Soon all the children are on top of his bed, as he sits at his desk. Erin wonders if her Momma will look different, not wanting her to change.
Dr. Vance places splints on Olivia’s legs, but Olivia wants exercises to strengthen her muscles. Vance says that is not possible, but indicates it’s okay for the children to visit. They rush upstairs, all but Erin. Elizabeth screams out, “Momma!” and runs for her. One by one the children hug and kiss their mother. Jason plays his harmonica as John-Boy searches for Erin. In the barn, Erin admits to John-Boy that she is afraid she will look sick and different. John-Boy reassures her that the important things about her are the same. Going inside, Erin hugs and kisses her mother, relieved at finding her the same.
John-Boy writes in his journal that, “Mama's room has become the center of the house. Every day she talks with us, telling us of the hopes and dreams she has for each one of us.”
After Ben tells her that he wants to become a salesman because he sold Ike a fish for fifteen cents (and Ike doesn’t like fish), Olivia recommends that Ben sell magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. Olivia tells Mary Ellen that she wants her to go to the dance with G.W. When Mary Ellen says she doesn’t have a dress, Olivia prompts her to find the Ladies Home Journal so she can make a dress for her. In the barn Jason writes a song after his mother urged him to compose. John-Boy drives to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville to pick up brochures and Olivia dreams of him attending college. Alone, Olivia succeeds in moving her upper body, feelings it’s a step in the right direction.
On campus, John-Boy asks for college information from the admissions clerk. While she gives him brochures, John-Boy asks whom to see about his mother’s polio. She directs him to Dr. Miller in experimental medicine. John-Boy talks with the professor who himself contracted polio when he was eighteen years old. Dr. Miller admits that no vaccines or medicines are available to counteract polio. When John-Boy describes an article about Sister Kenny’s Australian method to treat polio, Dr. Miller says it’s a radical, unproven method that she says has gotten good results. He promises to mail information.
Olivia sits upright in front of Dr. Vance and John while Erin attends to her. Dr. Vance thinks she will need a wheelchair, but Olivia insists she will walk. Mary Ellen walks in with the material for her “frilly” dress, but still wonders how to dance. John-Boy tells Dr. Vance about Sister Kenny. Then the family watch as John-Boy shows Mary Ellen how to dance, as Jason plays his harmonica. As Olivia repeats the “1-2-3” dance step, John remembers back when he and Olivia danced. Suddenly John notices that Olivia’s foot is moving. Everybody looks on, excited by the motion. Olivia promises that she will walk to the Easter sunrise service.
At Ike’s store John-Boy picks up the mail, but still finds no news from Dr. Miller. Ep comes in to listen to Ma Perkins on the radio with Ike. John takes Jason to Charlottesville to sign up for the music audition, taking Jim Bob and Elizabeth along to bring back springtime for Olivia. Ben is working at selling magazines. In Charlottesville John drops off John-Boy and Jason in front of the Bijou Theatre with the marquee stating, “Giant Amateur Contest Saturday March 24”. Back home Ben shows Olivia his first fifty cents of sales. He has sold three Saturday Evening Post magazines, two Collier’s, two Liberty magazines, and a three-dollar special to the Baldwin sisters. Outside John, Jim Bob, and Elizabeth plant crocuses; hoping they will bloom by Easter.
With splinters on her left leg, Olivia exercises her right leg, but says there has been no change since last week. John says healing takes time. Olivia says Dr. Vance thinks she should resign herself to being an invalid. John observes a man emerge from a car with two canes and a wheelchair. Dr. Miller is bringing the pamphlets, but all the children can do is stare at him while he slowly climbs the stairs to visit Olivia. He tells Olivia that there are no guarantees with polio, only possibilities.
Mary Ellen and G.W. practice dancing in a private spot in the forest for Friday’s dance. Mary Ellen shows G.W. a magazine from Rita May that features Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, wanting to dance like them. She tells G.W. to “take me in your arms or I’ll wham you!” They practice but look awkward together. That night John, Dr. Vance, Grandpa, and Grandma discuss over coffee the steam heat and massage practice of Sister Kenney. Dr. Vance is against it, as is Grandpa. But Grandma and John-Boy support the nurse, while John tries to be fair to all. Olivia wants to try the technique, impatient that she still can’t walk. John-Boy starts to boil water, while Olivia rips off the splints. Grandma wrings the first wool blanket as Erin takes it upstairs. Grandma places the wool blankets on her legs, while Olivia shows a determined face.
Later Jason tells Grandma he doesn’t like the song he’s playing at the contest. But as she irons Jason picks up the rhythm that Grandma uses to iron the clothes, and begins to create the song. Upstairs John-Boy and Erin rotate Olivia’s ankle while she concentrates on its motion. Olivia, impatient with her process, insists they help her to her feet. She tries to walk, but falls. John-Boy says, “It’ll happen.” Grandpa watches as Jim Bob and Elizabeth look for the crocuses to break through the soil. Grandpa reassures them that they’ll wait until Jack Frost leaves. The Baldwin sisters drive up to pay their respects to Olivia and to present her with a wheelchair. The two sisters talk about how prayer can change one’s life, as the wheelchair is brought in. Olivia just stares. As Jason practices his song, John does paperwork, and Grandma and Erin sew, G.W. knocks on the front door for his date with Mary Ellen. Olivia sees the pair, commenting on how nice he looks. They dance in front of her, and Olivia whispers to her daughter, “You’ll be the prettiest girl there!”
Mary Ellen comes home all excited. She tells the family how terrible it was at the beginning, with everybody standing around. But then she and G.W. started to dance, and at the end of the night, wished it would never end. She tells her mother that three boys asked her to other dances and that G.W. was jealous.
The family sits around the supper table when John announces that everybody will attend Jason’s performance at the theatre because of a special discount from Jason’s appearance. Erin insists that Grandma go, because she wants to stay to take care of her mother. As the family returns home Olivia becomes mad at Erin, but Erin acknowledges that she would be upset, too. John picks his wife up and carries her downstairs so she and Erin can watch Jason’s performance. Grandpa becomes the announcer, Mr. Osgood Tennison. He announces the first act composed of Ben as the master and Jim Bob as the trained dog that does the tricks but not in the right order. The second act is Eleanor played by Elizabeth who quotes, “Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was black as soot. And everywhere that Mary went, its sooty foot it put.” Then Grandpa announces Jason and his song The Ironing Board Blues: Jason sings:
Mamma’s in the kitchen baking apple pies.
Daddy’s in the sawmill cutting railroad ties.
Grandpa and the children have their chores to do.
While Grandma tries to iron out the ironing board blues.
(chorus) Oh, the ironing board blues, it’s old and it’s new.
It’s fast or it’s slow, it’s just whatever you choose.
You don’t need to be afraid to state your views.
And tell the whole world that you’ve got the ironing board blues.
Grandma gets her rhythm rocking to and fro.
Her feet tap in syncopation on the kitchen floor.
The ironing board is squeaking on the one and the two.
And you know that Grandma Walton is playing the ironing board blues.
Grandpa presents the first prize award to Jason, a new guitar. Later Grandma tells Grandpa while they lay in bed that he was very good at the announcer. Zeb touches her cheek, but Esther says, “Not that good!” John-Boy writes in his journal, “Easter is less than a week away. Spring is still not in sight. And Momma seems no closer to walking. Suppose this is the year when spring never comes. No green buds, no blossoms with the promise of fruit and harvest. Men must have shared these same doubts for thousands of years. Asked themselves what must we do to bring back spring? What can we offer You in exchange to an end to winter? The beginnings of new life, Momma strong and walking again. What can we do?”
Olivia tries to walk with Grandma and John-Boy’s help. She can’t walk and Grandma says, “No more!” As Olivia returns to bed John-Boy believes she is trying too hard, thinking that it is easier to do something when one doesn’t think so much. Olivia believes tomorrow will be a good day to use her new wheelchair. Grandma and John-Boy argue about whether to give up or not. John-Boy can’t believe that his mother should, as Grandma says, “resign herself to God’s will” and rushes outside upset. Grandma tells John to go after John-Boy.
John finds his son on a ridge covered with snow, overlooking a steep descent. John-Boy says, “In this world you can’t count on anything!” and John responds, “I don’t agree.” John-Boy says, “Momma has given up. Grandma says ‘its God’s will’.” John responds, “Maybe Grandma is right.” John-Boy says, “All of my life I’ve been taught about a loving and caring God.” John says to John-Boy that, “Maybe you think God hasn’t kept up his part of the bargain. But maybe it’s because it’s not his bargain but yours. There’s a power in our lives that has protected us all through the years, now we must accept what has happened. Some things you can’t change”. John-Boy disagrees with his father. John says what really counts is how you accept the good and bad that life brings you. John-Boy says, “It’s not enough!”
That night Olivia hears the last storm of winter. John thinks it might be the first spring rain. Olivia says it is time to learn how to use the wheelchair and accept her fate, to live her life as it is now, not how she wishes she could live it. Early the next morning with the sun barely over the horizon and a new day about to dawn, Olivia has a dream that Elizabeth is calling for her help. Unconsciously Olivia gets out of bed to help her daughter. She walks a step and suddenly awakens. John comes in to see her standing. She’s walking! She’s all right! The children arrive. Olivia says that maybe John-Boy was right, that she was trying too hard. Olivia sees the crocuses blooming around the tree in the front yard. It’s a beautiful sight. The family attends Easter sunrise services, with Olivia walking there as she promised she would.
"My mother did go to the sunrise service that Easter morning, and there was a special joy in all our hearts as she stood leaning on my father's arm, facing into the first glorious rays of the sun which rolled back the darkness and warmed the wakening world to new life and hope. Many Easters have passed since then, other Springs have been slow to come, but inevitably, winter has yielded to spring. The years have brought the full quota of blessings and trials, joys and heartaches. The same old questions recur: Why my child? Why my wife? Why me? Why? And the search for answers has been taken up by new generations of grandchildren, but it's still reassuring for me to catch the echo of those dear familiar voices on that Easter, long, long ago".
Olivia: Yes, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Which crocusses do you like the best, blue, or the yellow, or the white?
Olivia: They're all so lovely. I like them all equally.
Elizabeth: Same as us children?
Olivia: That's right!
Elizabeth: 'Night, Mama.
Olivia: Goodnight, Elizabeth.
The Baldwin sisters attend the Episcopal Church, saying their Papa was a deacon at the church. (Later in the series, the sisters attend the Baptist Church.)
John-Boy says the university campus at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is about twenty-five miles away.
Dr. Miller is from Crabtree Falls, near to Walton’s Mountain. In reality, Crabtree Falls is located in the George Washington National Forest, Crabtree Falls Nature Center and parking area is located on state route 56, just 19 miles west of U. S. Highway 29 in Nelson County, Virginia or 6 miles east of the intersection of state route 56 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The song Ironing Board Blues was written and performed by Jon Walmsley.
A dramatized account of the Australian nurse Sister Kenny's fight for recognition of her treatment for polio is in the 1946 RKO film Sister Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell as Sister Kenny. The screenplay was adapted from Sister Mary Kenny's autobiography And They Shall Walk.
Ike Godsey (Joe Conley), Miss Mamie and Miss Emily Baldwin (Helen Kleeb and Mary Jackson), Rev. Matthew Fordwick (John Ritter), Sheriff Ep Bridges (John Crawford), Dr. Vance (Victor Isay), G.W. Haines (David Doremus), Dr. Miller (Don Collier), Snyder (Joseph Bernard), Admissions Clerk (Ann Carol Pearson), Tom (Joe Frank Carollo).
(synopsis written by William Atkins and edited by Arthur Dungate)