Elizabeth says that destroying the marigolds is her last act of childhood because it leads her to finally comprehend the rationale behind Miss Lottie's seemingly cryptic habits. Through her new perspective, Elizabeth learns to refrain from superficial judgments, and she begins to have more empathy for others. Her more mature outlook characterizes her growth from childhood to young adulthood.
In the story, Miss Lottie is an impoverished old woman who lives with her mentally disabled son (John Burke) in a dilapidated house. Elizabeth notes that everything Miss Lottie owns is in a state of extreme disrepair. Even her house is the "most ramshackle of all...ramshackle homes." The only thing of beauty Miss Lottie can lay claim to is her marigolds. Yet, Elizabeth contends that the "warm and passionate and sun-golden" blossoms fit in poorly "with the crumbling decay" of the rest of Miss Lottie's yard.
Basically, Elizabeth thinks that the marigolds look out of place in Miss Lottie's dismal-looking yard. One night, in a fit of rage, Elizabeth proceeds to pull up all the marigolds. Her rage may well have been inspired by her sense of helplessness in overhearing her once-strong father weeping in agony over his inability to provide for his family. To Elizabeth's young mind, the world is full of cruelty, inexplicable in its relentless fury to destroy.
The world had lost its boundary lines. My mother, who was small and soft, was now the strength of the family; my father, who was the rock on which the family had been built, was sobbing like the tiniest child. Everything was suddenly out of tune, like a broken accordion. Where did I fit into this crazy picture? I do not now remember my thoughts, only a feeling of great bewilderment and fear.
To Elizabeth, the marigolds represent a mockery of life, and she works to destroy it. It is only when Miss Lottie appears before her with "sad, weary eyes" that she begins to comprehend the true reason behind Miss Lottie's seeming eccentricity. Elizabeth now realizes that Miss Lottie is only a "broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility." Growing marigolds was the only way the old woman had been able to preserve some semblance of beauty, joy, and love in her life. When Elizabeth realizes this, she begins to mature in her outlook on life. This is why she says that destroying the marigolds is her last act of childhood.
"Marigolds" by Eugenia W. Collier is a poignant coming-of-age tale which features the sudden epiphany of the narrator, Elizabeth, when she destroys the marigolds of their somewhat ferocious neighbour Miss Lottie.
The crucial moment for the story is when Elizabeth, acting in a fit of anger having heard about her father's lost job and his desperation, goes and annihiliates the marigolds of Miss Lottie, who proudly and carefully grew them. When she has finished, she is surprised to see Miss Lottie there, watching her:
And there was no rage in the face now, now that the garden was destroyed and there was nothing any longer to be protected.
Seeing Miss Lottie after committing this "violent, crazy act" enables her to "gaze upon a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood." She realises the true significance of the marigolds - "beauty in the midst of ugliness" - and loses her innocence:
Innocence involves an unseeing acceptance of things at face value, an ignorance of the area below the surface. In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence.
This act of wanton destruction therefore and the narrator's confrontation with Miss Lottie catapults her into being a woman and no longer a child.