Kathleen Wheaton: “A History of the Modern World”

It was like being back at college.

Ruth’s daughter Helen said it first—Helen, who’d always been adept at metaphors as well as at patronizing her mother.

It’s like a college dining hall, Mom,” she said, at lunch after helping Ruth move in. The food was good—gazpacho, grilled shrimp, quinoa salad, blondies with chocolate chunks—a far cry from the gray, gravy-soaked dorm food of the nineteen-fifties. But there were the plastic cafeteria trays, the heavy, off-white crockery, the stubby drinking glasses still warm from the industrial dishwasher. The hubbub.

Helen glanced around with an amused, curious expression—probably collecting material for her next embarrassing novel. “I wonder which is the cool kids’ table?” she said.

Not so loud, darling,” Ruth said, though there was no way any of these old people could have overheard. She and Helen were at a table for two—Ruth was simply too exhausted, after a morning of unpacking, to extend herself to strangers. She was almost too tired to eat.

First time for everything, Henry would have teased her. Like her, he’d loved to eat. They’d chosen this retirement place for its situation among the redwoods, a short drive from a foggy coastline famous for its artichoke and ollalaberry farms. The chef had supposedly trained with Alice Waters.

Not her star student, I’d guess,” Henry had said. “Cooking for a crowd sans teeth, sans taste buds, sans everything.”

Privately, Henry had mocked friends who’d put themselves into the Home, as he’d decided to call it. Volunteer inmates, he said. But then, on his eighty-third birthday, he proposed getting their names on a waiting list. Easier than renewing the extended warranties on the appliances, he joked.

A year later, a one-bedroom with a view of the foothills became available (one didn’t care to think too much about why), and Ruth saw that he was serious. They began getting rid of possessions. “No luggage rack on a hearse,” Henry said.

Perhaps he felt a rumbling in his blood, like distant thunder.

He was hoisting an overloaded box of Ruth’s college textbooks for the Goodwill pickup when he tore an artery and collapsed. Did not suffer, the doctor assured her. Never knew what hit him.

Except—he did. “Sugar!” he exclaimed, as A History of the Modern World slid off the top of the pile and landed on his foot. “God damn it, Ruth!”—he’d always maintained that history was a gut major. Her name was his last word.

Ruth saw no reason to make his final utterance public, even at the reception following the funeral, which, given Henry’s age and his prosperous, friend-filled life, was more like a roast. Hoary “funny” stories were told, some—judging from Helen’s set expression and curled lip—probably sexist and insensitive to disadvantaged groups, none of whom were present. Their younger daughter, Maggie, a diplomat’s wife, laughed at the punchlines and kept her mother’s wineglass filled.

So Henry had made this bed, but Ruth had to lie in it—their four-bedroom Tudor was already under contract. The buyers kindly gave her an extra month to pack.

But as moving day grew closer, Ruth woke before dawn on a queen mattress that was suddenly vast as Texas and imagined a white-clad figure moving towards her, proffering a full bottle of sleeping pills. Would it be painless, as the song said?

She scurried to the doctor.

Depression,” Dr. Lee said, writing on her pad.

Well, duh,” Ruth said.

Dr. Lee looked up, and her inscrutable expression (how Helen would scold her for even thinking such a thing about a person of Asian heritage) relaxed into a smile. Ruth was surprised—with Henry, she’d been the straight man. They both laughed for a long time.

People at the Home also found Ruth amusing. She took care to credit the college simile to Helen, whom some knew to be a writer. Those who didn’t, Ruth did not apprise. Thankfully, nobody here had attended that bookstore event in Berkeley, where Helen had read the word “penis” aloud.

Ruth had glanced anxiously at Henry, sitting next to her. To her amazement, he was beaming. “She’s standing up nice and straight,” he whispered.

That’s a flattering neckline for her, don’t you think?” she’d replied gamely, and Henry didn’t respond. He’d taken off his hearing aids.

He refused to wear them in social situations. “What good are they,” she’d asked him, “if you can only hear when you’re talking to yourself?”

Touché,” he’d said, but he’d slip them into his pocket before they walked into a party. Didn’t like how they made him look.

Denial wasn’t just a river, it was the sea on which Ruth was now adrift, with no land in sight. At the Home, the building where those who no longer recognized their own children was called the Memory Unit. The Health Unit was for the bedridden. The one spot where it was acceptable to sit and weep over your unacceptable losses was the Peace Garden.

She was not comforted by the thought that those around her were in the same boat. Several people she’d known in college and still didn’t like. There was the former campus beauty reapplying lipstick to her thin, wrinkled mouth; the arrogant frat boy blocking a hallway with his walker. On a clear day, you could behold as if from heaven their world-famous alma mater: the red-tiled roofs, the bell tower, the palm trees. Reverie-provoking odors wafted up on the breeze: eucalyptus, manzanita, horse manure, followed by hallucinatory scents of My Sin and boyish sweat.

Ruth learned that nostalgia was frowned upon as a conversational topic, just as sex had been, back in the day. It’s a canard that old people live in the past—they live in the present, like everyone else, and deplore it heartily. A favorite dining-hall topic was the new construction on campus, financed by billionaire inventors of portable telephones. And the wacky majors! Women’s Studies! “I’ve been studying women for decades,” leered one elderly wag, while his wife sat across the table, eating crab risotto with a spoon to keep from spilling. Erstwhile golden boys who could get any girl behaved as if it were still the case. Ruth conjured Henry’s voice: Jerk. I’m studying to punch his lights out. She smiled at the nervy old goat who’d never have her, and flashed her diamond rings.

As in college, many at the Home were reading the same book. Ruth had her copy from Helen, then spied one on the coffee table of her next-door neighbor, Lillian, who’d invited her in for tea to welcome her to the hallway. “Have you read it yet?” she asked.

Lord, no,” Lillian said. “My son who gave me it is coming to visit. I’ve not had one magical thought since becoming a widow.”

And this is hardly Hogwarts,” Ruth said.

Hardly Hogwarts—oh! You are funny. Everyone says so.” Lillian flipped the book over. The author was their contemporary, but had attended their rival university, across the bay. Ruth felt included in Lillian’s smile of superiority. Back in college, she hadn’t really known Lillian and her late husband, Gordon, but she’d known of them, certainly. A handsome, patrician couple whose ancestors had San Francisco streets named after them.

Evidently,” Lillian said, “Miss Joan Didion went back East and became quite the show-off.”

Ruth already knew that writers were show-offs, while at the same time awkward and shy. Another irony was that they judged everyone but themselves. Eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued Helen could not see, for example, how absurd it was to dress all day for the yoga she did for ten minutes, or to wear her gray hair long and straight like a teenager’s. She visited once a week, whether Ruth wanted her to or not. Helen quizzed her mother about whether she was joining in the activities and making friends.

Of course.” Ruth mentioned tea with Lillian, as if it were a regular thing.

Because the social worker is concerned about your adjustment here.”

Ruth shivered. Someone’s walking over your grave, Henry would have said. Her plot was ready, next to his in the cemetery. She pictured him lying not in his coffin but with his hands behind his head on a lazy Sunday afternoon, watching her take off her clothes.

On whose authority did the social worker talk to you?” she said to Helen.

You signed me on to access your health information, remember? I got an email saying that you’ve been keeping to yourself.”

I do remember signing that form,” Ruth said. “I thought it was for eventually pulling the plug.” For a mercy, she wasn’t in a unit where they monitored your bm’s, because Helen would be wanting to talk about them.

Like a terrier, Helen was still worrying the subject of friend-making. Ruth repeated the words Lillian and tea. Helen looked skeptical.

She’s quite the reader, Lillian is,” Ruth said. “I gave her a copy of your book.”

All right; it was a lie, but a magical one. Helen was pretty when she smiled. They continued down the gravel path of the Peace Garden in silence, their feet crunching. Dahlias and hollyhocks waved in the afternoon breeze.

Are you chilly?” Helen asked. “Maybe we should head back.”

Lillian would be returning about now from the water aerobics class. Ruth wanted to avoid running into her in the hallway, making introductions, any loose talk about literature. “Just a few more minutes,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful time of day.”

Instead of being punished for her subterfuge, she was rewarded: They lifted their eyes to the hills and watched magnificent waves of fog spilling over the tops of the cypresses. The clouds rolled down and engulfed them, like sea-foam.

It wasn’t Helen’s fault that Ruth had become entangled in falsehood, but Ruth blamed her anyway. Not for the first time, she wished that Maggie was the one who lived close by, though it was hard to imagine her younger daughter in the workaday world—driving a car, doing laundry, pushing a grocery cart. She did do those things when she visited, but self-consciously and in high heels, like Princess Kate. There’d always been something royal about Maggie—going all the way back to the spangly tutus she’d favored as a child, her peaceable reigns as homecoming and Rose queens.

Her far-flung abodes were like palaces out of the Arabian Nights with their cool, polished corridors, lush gardens, and noiseless, attentive staff. Helen, who’d done Peace Corps and spoke Spanish, was unimpressed by the glamour and would routinely criticize whatever U.S. policy Maggie’s husband, Scott, was trying to promote. (Maybe Scott doesn’t agree with it, either! Ruth had wanted to shout. Maybe he’s just being diplomatic!)

Instead, she’d steer the conversation to Maggie’s son and daughter. Julian and Portia, who’d lived their whole lives in embassies, were lovely; well-mannered, with unplaceable accents, like Liza Dolittle’s.

Helen had no children. She would have books instead, she’d declared, before she’d even finished her undergraduate degree. But she had just the one. Her only-child novel, published eight years earlier. Now she was fifty.

What is it about?” Lillian asked. She thumbed through the pages of Helen’s book. Paused. Perhaps on the penis page.

You are not obliged to read it,” Ruth said. “I just wanted to explain the situation I’d gotten myself into.”

So give me a précis,” Lillian said.

The plot was hard to summarize. There was quite a bit of sex—relationships, as unmarried congress was now called. Perfidious men. Clueless, cruel parents. But of course it was fiction, despite having the same title as the textbook that had killed Henry.

I understand perfectly,” Lillian said. “My younger son, Adam, is a singer-songwriter.”


Lillian kept skimming. “The name ‘Cordelia’ seems to crop up a lot,” she said. She closed the book. “I shall tell her that Cordelia is a wonderful character.”

Thank you so much,” Ruth said.

They began having tea together daily. In the evenings, they’d fortify themselves with a glass of wine before braving the mob in the dining hall. They’d save seats at the table for each other, nab the last two dishes of coffee gelato if one of them was at the back of the dessert line.

Ruth dug out her old bathing suit and joined Lillian’s water exercise class. They attended a lecture on local wildlife and walked in the drought-parched foothills, armed with umbrellas. You were supposed to open it if you saw a mountain lion.

It’s the Mary Poppins defense,” Ruth said.

You’re priceless,” Lillian told her.

Ruth hadn’t had a confidante—other than Henry—in years. And he was a man, not inclined to prolonged discussions.

Neither was Gordon,” Lillian said. “It was always just—slam, bam, thank-you-ma’am.”

Ruth giggled. “I think that expression has a double meaning.”

I can’t keep up. Language, Mother, language,” the boys are always telling me.”

This was funny because Lillian spoke with the faintly British inflections of upper-crust San Francisco. Henry had talked that way, too. He was part of the smart set invited to Lillian and Gordon’s wedding (Ruth was included, as his fiancée) but he’d been stricken with food poisoning at the last minute.

The ceremony, at Grace Cathedral, had been in all the papers. Reception at the Pacific Union Club. Ruth hadn’t minded missing it. She’d been such a mouse in those days. Didn’t know her own worth, Henry said.

But now she and Lillian were just two old ladies, hiking in dusty Mephistos. They’d had many of the same life experiences. Husbands in business. Two children—one successful, the other unconventional. Lillian’s eldest was a well-known surgeon. Not that everything had been rosy there. It was too tempting, the drugs doctors had access to. He’d gone to rehab, not lost his license—no thanks to Gordon, by the way. “I said, if there was ever a time to use your connections, now is it,” Lillian said. “But he was adamant that the boys make it on their own.”

I suppose that was wise,” Ruth said. “Our son-in-law took the career path through State. He’s never thought much of these know-nothing political appointees.”

Of course,” Lillian said, and looked away. Ruth was mortified—how could she have forgotten that Lillian’s father had been ambassador to Japan?

Embassy life is full of temptations, too,” Ruth said quickly. “But Maggie seems to have gotten her drinking under control.”

She thought Maggie wouldn’t mind her revealing this, though Helen would. She was still protective of her younger sister, and Maggie still worshipped Helen—you’d have thought their childhood roles might have reversed, seeing how their lives had turned out.

Anyway, Lillian was the soul of discretion.

It was like being in junior high again, having a bosom friend.

It didn’t escape general notice that Ruth had wormed her way into Lillian’s inner circle—become her inner circle, in fact.

Nobody said this to her face. What someone did say, after Ruth had placed her cardigan on an aisle seat for Lillian, who was coming late to an a cappella concert, was this: “How wonderful that the two of you have been able to bury the hatchet about Henry.”

Henry?” Ruth gazed at the woman sitting to her right. Betty. The gossip of their sophomore French class.

The way Lillian threw him over for Gordon at her debutante dance. Broke the poor boy’s heart. We thought he’d never recover.”

Ruth recalled Henry’s early-morning phone call on the day of Lillian’s wedding: I shan’t recover in time, I’m afraid.

Water under the bridge,” she said now. “Over the dam. Water, water, everywhere.”

You’re a stitch,” Betty said.

Have I missed anything?” Lillian said, sitting down. “Rats, because I loathe a cappella,” she whispered. But they sat quietly and listened to the fresh voices of young people who’d taken time out of their busy day to come to the Home and bring joy to the elderly.

Ruth knew that Henry had had his heart broken shortly before they’d met. It took him down a peg. Unlike other society boys, he was kind, and ready for the love of a good woman. Did not mind that she was a scholarship girl from Modesto.

Some people did mind. Black Irish, people said to Ruth O’Leary, lingering lovingly on the word black. You must have Spanish blood from the Armada, her future father-in-law had joked, and mimed castanets.

She glanced at Lillian, who despite her aversion seemed carried away by the final tune: Come hear Uncle John’s band, playing to the tide. That aristocratic jaw, those cornflower-blue eyes. Ruth asked herself whether it mattered, at this stage of the game, that Lillian had been her predecessor.

The answer soared into her brain with the chorus: Anybody’s choice. I can hear your voice. No. She did not care that she’d been Henry’s second choice. He’d loved her, and they had been happy.

Gordon had been very rich and good-looking, but there’d been rumors about his predilections.

The audience members who had not dropped off to sleep applauded extra for those who had. “Grateful Dead?” Lillian said, perusing the program. “I’m just grateful it’s over.”

Will Helen write another novel, do you think?” Lillian asked. Against Ruth’s advice, she’d read the book and claimed to have liked it.

She says she put everything she had into the first one,” Ruth said. She made a wry face. All that dirty family linen, barely disguised.

Since Lillian had read it, Ruth figured she might as well separate fact from fiction. Ruth’s father had indeed been violent, hard-drinking. Her mother had depression—though no one called it that—and couldn’t cope after Ruth’s father went to jail for larceny. An older brother disappeared into Alaska.

All three were long dead.

Ruth’s freshman year in college had been the first time in her life she could eat as much as she wanted. Watching the other girls, she’d learned to complain and turn up her nose. Otherwise, she might have become quite fat.

Lillian listened, murmured sympathy. “Rich or poor, every family has troubles,” she said. “We just muddled through, in those days. Psychotherapy was for crazies.” She sighed. “Wives were simply brood mares, taken to produce offspring.”

I suppose,” Ruth said. She was a little shocked.

But then one loves one’s children, doesn’t one?”

Lillian doted on her sons, particularly Adam. He was a pleasant young man—well, not that young; his ponytail was almost white. He had long, slender musician’s fingers, a gentle manner. At the same time, he wasn’t like his father. What was the word Helen used for the sense one got about some men? Radar.

Adam and Helen had never met, but Lillian was keen to introduce them. She enjoyed Helen: “She’s your spit and image, you know,” she told Ruth.

Henry had said so, too. He and Maggie were the sunny, golden ones. Helen was dark, critical and cranky. She saw the cracks and flaws in everything. That was why they didn’t get along. You didn’t necessarily want to see your worst traits coming at you, big as life.

I’m not being set up,” Helen said, to the suggestion of meeting Adam.

It’s not a set-up,” Ruth said. “Just pop by for ten minutes.”

Not happening,” Helen said.

She’s stubborn,” Ruth sighed. “She’s found something wrong with every suitor she’s ever had.”

Brava,” Lillian said.

Maybe,” Ruth allowed. “It’s true that men her age, if they’ve never married, tend to have something wrong with them.”

There was a silence.

Oh!” Ruth said. “I didn’t mean—and you said that Adam lived with a woman for ten years. So it’s as if he was married.”

Indeed,” Lillian said. She yawned without covering her mouth. “Well, I’m going to bed. You’ll see yourself out?”

The next morning, Lillian didn’t answer Ruth’s breakfast knock, though Ruth could hear her moving around inside her apartment. She went to the dining room alone, ate half a piece of toast, then walked back slowly along the breezeway.

The fog had burned off early; it was a glorious morning. When she opened her apartment door, she saw Lillian sitting in one of the webbed chairs on her patio. Her heart sailed. Lillian would apologize for her brusqueness of the night before, and then Ruth would beg forgiveness for her thoughtless remark. All would be well.

What a splendid day,” she caroled, sliding the glass door open. She sat down in the matching chair with a friendly groan. “My lemon’s finally in bloom.”

Lillian’s expression was grim. “My pearls are missing,” she said.


My pearls are missing. Have you seen them?”

Why, no, I—” Ruth stopped. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Lillian. When you ask me whether I’ve seen your pearls, it seems to suggest that you think I may have taken them.”

I left them on the coffee table last night. You were the last person in my apartment. This morning, when I got up, they were gone.”

I will not dignify that with an answer,” Ruth said. She was trembling. “I’m terribly hurt and offended by your accusation.”

So you don’t deny it?” Lillian rose to her feet. “Blood will out, as they say.” She turned, stepped over the low hedge between their patios and stalked back into her own place.

The manager of the Home appeared to believe Ruth (“We’ve had many, many cases of older people misplacing things,” he said soothingly. “No need to involve the police.”).

But everyone else believed Lillian, for whom discretion had flown out the window. At dinner, Ruth set down her tray and silence would fall over the table. She refused to speak up in her own defense. These people, who’d looked askance at her and her background years ago, were still ready to think the worst. After her first-class education, her cautiously self-taught refinement, a lifetime of volunteering, of being a trouper, of smiling sweetly through the insinuations, the Black Irish insults.

She ate alone, walked alone, swam alone. So what. The hell with everyone. She’d kept it together all through the dreadful days and weeks after Henry’s death, but now, because of a silly, schoolgirlish quarrel, she felt hot tears welling in her eyes.

She ended up telling Helen everything. Lord knew, it was dangerous to confide in her. That had been such an error when she was a young mother—telling her grim childhood stories to a bright and curious girl. “We don’t discuss these things outside the family,” Ruth had said. She had not thought to say, “And we don’t grow up and write them in a book, either.”

But she needed to unburden to someone. “Maybe you could write a novel about this kerfuffle,” she said.

The Case of the Missing Pearls,” Helen said. “It sounds like a Nancy Drew.”

How you used to love them! There’s no sex, though, and I guess that’s what modern readers want.”

There’s sex in every story, Mom.”

Not much in Lillian’s, evidently. People used to whisper that Gordon was a fairy.”

You mustn’t use that word,” Helen said.

Well, gay certainly doesn’t apply. I never once saw him smile.”

Two weeks later, Ruth was sitting on her patio, sipping wine. She was getting along fine. She was rereading her Sue Graftons in alphabetical order.

Suddenly, Lillian lunged over the hedge, hair disheveled, dress buttoned wrong. “I’ve found my pearls!” She laughed—cackled. “They were under that Cal girl’s book, the whole time. Magical thinking, my eye!”

She knelt on the flagstones and thrust her folded hands toward Ruth’s face. “Can you ever, ever forgive me?”

Slowly, deliberately, Ruth put a bookmark in E is for Evidence. “Of course.”

It was as if she’d said no. “Please,” Lillian begged. She smelled unwashed. Gingerly, Ruth patted her stiff hair. She’d hoped the pearls would reappear, but this was horrifying. Lillian’s poor knees must be scraped, but she wouldn’t stop this crazed beseeching.

Do get up,” Ruth cried. “It’s perfectly all right.”

But it wasn’t. Lillian—it was discovered later—had a swift-moving form of dementia that tore through her brain like a wildfire. There were angry outbursts, tears over nothing. Then the old, composed Lillian would return: “A rough patch,” she’d say briskly.

Ruth did what she could. When Lillian balked at going to meals, Ruth smuggled her fruit and custard from the dining hall. When she came plunging half-dressed over the hedge, Ruth coaxed her back inside, ran her a bath. “We won’t mention this to Adam, will we,” Lillian said. She could rally convincingly for his visits.

One day, she dropped her towel and escaped—naked down the breezeway. There was no hiding this from the Home’s administration, and Lillian was consigned to the Memory Unit.

Perhaps it was just as well, Ruth often thought, over the next year. According to the Memory Unit nurses, Lillian was blissfully unaware of the pandemic, the lockdowns, the waves of deaths—though there were none reported at the Home, where residents obediently stayed in their rooms, like punished children.

We’re model prisoners,” Ruth told Helen, over the phone. She could not abide FaceTime—anyway, she and her daughter knew perfectly well what the other looked like.

By the time Ruth was vaccinated and could visit Lillian, her friend no longer recognized her. “Lovely to meet you,” Lillian murmured, over and over, during their allotted half-hour. She sat in a chair by the window, gazing not at Ruth but at the foothills where the two had once walked and laughed so merrily. Some might have said she looked serene. Walking back to her apartment, Ruth wept openly, breaking the unwritten rule of the Home, that optimism must be maintained at all times.

Lillian’s memorial was held at Grace, with music and readings she’d chosen long before, after reviewing the pluses and minuses of Gordon’s service. Attendance was limited as a health precaution; in spite of her grief, Ruth couldn’t help feeling gratified that she’d made the cut. Helen picked her up and drove her to the City, as both Henry and Lillian had always called San Francisco.

The morning was breezy and bright, though even swanky Nob Hill looked post-apocalyptic, with its blowing trash and lost souls wandering about in rags. Henry’s grandmother had lived here in the neighborhood’s heyday, in an apartment crammed with dark furniture overlooking Alcatraz Island. On the day Henry brought Ruth to meet her, a German nurse had wheeled a very old lady out to the sitting room. Grandmother held out a hand that looked like a claw but was cool and silky to the touch. Ruth had believed, as all young people do, that the elderly choose to be old, for reasons best known to themselves.

What a pretty gull you are,” Grandmother had said.

That meant—though nobody said it—that Henry and Ruth could get married. Ruth was petrified by the idea of the Cathedral, so they’d chosen a little country church in Menlo Park instead.

Now here she was with her middle-aged daughter, climbing Grace’s stone steps. She took Helen’s arm, for balance. Oh, oh, what I want to know is, where does the time go? It was odd what bits of lint got stuck in the memory. “Wouldn’t it be something if the choir took requests?” she said.

Helen regarded her. “You’re in good spirits.”

Not blithe, but good.”

In the vestibule, under the great rose window, stood Adam, tall and thin in a dark suit. He had written to Ruth that they should sit with the family, but how very kind to wait for them.

She said this, and then, “I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter.”

For once, Helen was dressed for the occasion, in a black shift and pumps, her silver hair up in a chignon. She was even wearing the pearls her mother had given her—Ruth could not bear to wear pearls, ever again.

Nice to meet you,” they both said.

This was what Lillian had wanted, almost her last words. Had there been a message in her madness?

Because of the novel, Ruth was privy to an awful lot of what went on in her daughter’s head—more than anyone should ever know about anyone. One thing she hadn’t known was how Helen would look when she saw a man she believed she could love. The multicolored light from the window made her appear rosy and young—it was like gazing into a mirror that also reflected the past. It was the same old story, then—that frank demonstration of hope: the wide eyes, the open, friendly, innocent smile—as if she knew nothing about him at all.




Kathleen Wheaton grew up in California and worked for 25 years as a journalist in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Washington, D.C. Her short story collection, Aliens and Other Stories, received the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize. Her fiction has appeared in many journals and two anthologies, and she was a 2022 recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council grant. She’s currently assembling a second story collection and a novel.