“Sometimes when we were children all the love and attention we got at home just wasn't enough. For each of us, there came a time when something from the outside was needed to give us a sense of self-confidence. It was a need of this kind that got my sister Mary Ellen into a lot of trouble, and gave me a whole new way of looking at women.”
John-Boy drives to Boatwright to work on the newspaper. Mike and he talk about the Hop, where John-Boy is taking Audrey Butler. She is a member of the Phi Lambda sorority, but John-Boy thinks he is around to do errands for her. Mike is taking Mary Ellen to the dance. She is a little nervous, it being her first college dance. John-Boy remembers he’s suppose to meet Mary Ellen in front of Grohman’s Department Store, but before leaving Audrey runs in asking John-Boy for another favor. Unable to help, Mike agrees to help. John-Boy picks up Mary Ellen (ten minutes late) who has bought thirty-seven cents silk stockings. She really wants a purse, but didn’t have enough money. On the way home, Mary Ellen sees Vernon (the junk man), hoping he might have a used purse. Vernon says he has one from Mrs. Breckenridge for thirty-five cents. Mary Ellen says she only has about twenty cents, and when he accepts the price she asks for change of her quarter.
At home, Erin mops the floor while Mary Ellen looks at a magazine of a woman debutante who was named after her mother. The kids tease Mary Ellen and she runs upstairs where she acts like an actress with her purse and imaginary cigarette. Suddenly she finds a ring hidden inside. She tries it on as Erin runs inside, wondering where she got the ring. She thinks Mary Ellen should return it to Mrs. Breckenridge, but Mary Ellen has decided to wear it to the dance, and then return it. Erin tries it on, commenting on how beautiful it looks. Mary Ellen hides it inside the secret dresser compartment when Olivia suddenly comes into the room. She reminds her eldest daughter when she was about her age and worried about going to a dance. Mary Ellen says she is not scared.
John and Grandpa haul a bucket of tar onto the roof. John applies some to a corner as John-Boy thinks about the girl—that he barely knows—whom he is taking to the dance. John says that he wasn’t sure about Olivia when he first met her. But when he got laid-off from his mechanics job in Charlottesville, Olivia came over to see if he wanted to talk about it. He tells his eldest son that he’ll know when he finds the right woman, someone you can trust in good times and bad. Grandpa interrupts, saying that it’s time to take a breather. They go for some rhubarb pie. Mrs. Breckenridge walks up to the house, wondering if Mary Ellen found the amethyst ring she thought might be in the hidden purse’s pocket. She explains to that it has sentimental value because her husband gave it to her. John-Boy says that Mary Ellen didn’t find the ring, and he looks inside the purse, but doesn’t find the ring. After Mrs. Breckenridge leaves Erin and Mary Ellen enter through the kitchen, finding the purse on the table. They go to John-Boy, wondering why it was downstairs. He explains the visit of Mrs. Breckenridge, and then returns to his study about Caesar. Erin and Mary Ellen talk about the ring. Mary Ellen promises to return the ring tomorrow morning, after tonight’s dance.
John-Boy prepares to go to the dance, as he tries to tie his tie in front of the boys. Jason thinks his brother is acting nervous, but John-Boy assures him that he’s not at all nervous. He doesn’t convince anybody, including himself. Mary Ellen also is getting ready. Erin thinks she looks like Brenda Frazer. Olivia then yells upstairs that Mike has arrived, and tells her daughter she looks lovely. The family waits downstairs. Grandpa asks Mike if he could have the first dance with Mary Ellen. Elizabeth turns on the radio and Grandpa and Mary Ellen dance to “As Time Goes By”. John-Boy drives off to pick up Audrey, as Mike and Mary Ellen drive away. Grandma tells Zeb that it was nice that he danced with their granddaughter. Esther also tells him that no one has asked her to dance in a long time. Grandpa asks her to dance, telling her that she is “beautiful and seasoned”. He explains that this means she is like a tree that is still beautiful after withstanding all kinds of weather.
At the dance, Mike pours punch as he asks John-Boy about Audrey. He says that if thinks he’s about fifth in line to dance with her. Martha Rose walks up to Mary Ellen with her brother Tedrow. When she finds out that Mary Ellen is at the dance with Mike, she quickly tells her that Tedrow is a last-minute stand-in for her real date. Tedrow asks Mary Ellen to dance, leaving Martha Rose to stand by herself. Audrey talks with some of her girlfriends about the sorority they are joining. John-Boy goes for punch for the three girls. In the bathroom, Mary Ellen places the ring on the sink while she freshens up. Martha Rose sees the ring, and wonders where she got it. As Mary Ellen walks out she is bumped and the ring, unbeknownst to her, is dropped onto the floor near the drain. At eleven o’clock, John-Boy says it is time to leave. At home, Esther asks Zeb while in bed that she remembers the first dance they went to together (in Dillbring county). She wore a pink dress with blue silk roses on it. Zeb says she had a figure like an hourglass, and Esther says she still has the figure. When Zeb tries to get closer to her, Esther says she’ll sleep on the sofa if he moves from his side of the bed. Esther tells him that she loves him, and Zeb says that he feels the same.
Mike brings Mary Ellen home, and gives her a kiss on the cheek. As he drives away Mary Ellen discovers that the ring is gone. Just then, John-Boy drives up, saying that she is absolutely wonderful. She wakes up Erin to tell her what happened. Early in the morning, the two search the front porch, but are interrupted by John-Boy bringing a pail of milk to the house. Later, Erin and Mary Ellen wait for Olivia to leave for Ike’s. After she leaves they return to their search. Again, John-Boy discovers their search, and asks them what they are doing. Erin insists that Mary Ellen tell her brother. Mary Ellen relates what happened. As Olivia walks back from Ike’s store Martha Rose rides up on her bike. She tells Olivia how beautiful Mary Ellen looked last night with her new dress and sparkling ring on her finger. She also says that Lenora Jane Gillis told her mother than Mrs. Breckenridge lost a ring. Olivia is obviously very furious with Mary Ellen as she continues her walk home.
John-Boy drives Mary Ellen and Erin to Boatwright. They find Mike next to his car, and search his car for the ring. But they do not find it. Mary Ellen remembers being bumped in the ladies’ room, and thinks she may have dropped it. They go the auditorium but it is locked. Next door, they find Audrey and tell her the story. They all go to the campus guard, hoping he will let them in. But rules prevent students from entering the building on the weekends, and he refuses to help. They find an open window to the restroom and Audrey climbs in. She finds the ring, but the security guard finds them breaking and entering. He writes a report for the Dean of Women against Audrey. Audrey realizes she won’t be admitted into the sorority, and John-Boy realizes he can trust her. On the way home, Mary Ellen says she’ll go to Mrs. Breckenridge, and John-Boy wants her to tell her the whole truth. At home Mary Ellen tells John, Olivia, and Grandma. Her punishment is to learn five Bible verses. Olivia says she’ll have to go without her to Mrs. Breckenridge’s house, but John-Boy drives her. At her house, Mary Ellen walks up the sidewalk.
“Our lives are measured not by birthdays but by the events that fall between them. Mary Ellen's first grown-up dance was a landmark in her passage from girlhood into the beautiful and engaging young woman she was to become. Yet, for a while in her dresser drawer, a reminder of the cocoon from which she had emerged, there remained a beat-up and much treasured old baseball glove, which she eventually passed on to her brothers.”
Mary Ellen: Mama, you know what?
Olivia: No, Mary Ellen, what?
Mary Ellen: My birth-stone is a diamond.
Olivia: That's real interesting. G'night Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen: Can I have a ring with a diamond in it sometime?
Olivia: Maybe you'll be given one when you get engaged.
Mary Ellen: Oh why Mama I don't want to wait that long!
Olivia: I'm afraid you'll have to. G'night!
Mary Ellen: It's just not fair! Goodnight, Mama.
Elizabeth: Mary Ellen? You can have my Lone Ranger ring, it has a real fake diamond in it.
Mary Ellen: Thanks, Elizabeth, but I think I'll just wait for the real thing, goodnight.
Elizabeth: Goodnight, Mary Ellen. Goodnight, Mama, goodnight, Daddy.
Olivia & John: Goodnight honey.
Ike Godsey (Joe Conley); Vernon Rutley (Roy Engel); Mrs. Breckenridge (Adrienne Marden); Martha Rose Coverdale (Cindy Eilbacher); Audrey Butler (Kathleen Cody); Mike West (Ted Eccles); Arthur Jackson (Jason Johnson); Girl Student (Deborah Newman), Girl Student (Alpha Blair), Tedrow Coverdale (Leigh Webb), Boy Student (Joy McKenna).