We’re Different Things to Different People ~ fiction by Kevin Brennan

We’re different things to different people.

Someone I know, though now dead, is a saint in one woman’s mind. That’s because that woman inherited the dead person’s house, worth probably two million dollars. That woman was the dead person’s step-daughter. She came into the person’s life as a hitchhiker, basically, hitching on her father’s coattails. He’d been a Nazi Youth. Or some kind of young Nazi affiliate, though he always claimed an unwilling one. He was a teenager at the time when Hitler was scooping up all the younger males to help with the desperate endgame of WWII. No one knows what really happened in his past.

The benefactress was smitten with him.

He was married before and had three kids, and that woman who would one day inherit the two-million-dollar house was one of the kids. Her name was Kelli. Her benefactress’s name was Betty. The Nazi Youth’s name was Johann, and Johann’s two boys are irrelevant in all of this.

Here’s how it all looked then:

Kelli met Betty when she was sixteen years old. That’s when Betty was suddenly eligible to date again, after she dumped her aging boyfriend, Jack, who had helped support her and her two daughters for almost twenty years. I forgot to show Betty’s two daughters, and Jack, in the diagram:

So Kelli met Betty’s daughters, Sara and Joan, when Betty and Johann started dating. Kelli was just sixteen, while Joan was nearly twenty-eight and Sara was twenty-five.
Betty had kicked Jack out of the house, but Sara felt sorry for him since he was the closest thing to a father she ever had, so she moved in with him to take care of him as his different illnesses got worse. It took several years for him to die. Sara had given up a lot to help him, because she loved him.

Kelli didn’t live with Betty and Johann once they moved in together in Betty’s house. She lived with her own mother and saw Betty and Johann occasionally. And Sara lived with Jack, and Joan lived with her boyfriend, whom she was about to marry, so all Kelli knew of Betty’s family was what she could glean when the daughters came over for dinner at Betty and Johann’s. She didn’t know any of their history. Nobody talks about that kind of thing at dinner.

We’re different things to different people.

To another woman, Betty was not a saint but rather an ogre who had to be gotten away from. In the many years before Kelli came along, that woman – Sara – had seen a lot of things that were terrible in Betty’s house. Betty was an alcoholic. Her husband, Sara’s real father, had died when Sara was eight, probably from an intentional overdose of medication. Betty couldn’t cope and drank to ease her pain, but she forgot she had two daughters when she did that, and she did that every night from dinner time into the wee hours of the morning. Smoking in bed too, and she set the house on fire one night and Sara saw the big picture window blow out from the street, where Joan had taken her to escape the fire.

And Betty had been an embarrassment whenever Sara brought friends over, so she stopped bringing friends over. And Betty had been so drunk one night she fell into the fireplace and a poker stabbed her in the ass and she accused Jack of shooting her even though there was no gun in the house, thank God. And Joan got away from all the madness by hiding in her room and having Sara go out and buy candy bars for her, and they created a fantasy world together where things weren’t so crazy, with made-up characters and animals. Joan let her alter ego, a hamster named Hammie, do a lot of the talking. Betty came home each afternoon and touched the top of the TV to see if the girls had been watching it instead of doing their homework. If it was warm they were in trouble. If they were in trouble it could last for days.

And Sara got into the habit of sleeping in her school clothes for the next day because Betty was never awake when it was time to get dressed, and for breakfast Sara and Joan made themselves garlic toast. And Betty was oblivious to almost everything the girls did, but when she did learn about something she didn’t like she went crazy and threw things around and knocked all of Sara’s things off her dresser. And Sara was a teenager when Betty came flying into her room in a drunken rage for the umpteenth time to strike her but Sara grabbed her by the wrists and held her like that and stared into her eyes with all the indignant strength she had, and Betty slipped away, finally subdued. And a few years later, when Sara was twenty and Betty’s own elderly mother was living with them, Betty forced Sara to tell her that she had to leave. Sara’s grandmother was so upset she attacked Sara with her fists and blamed her for the rest of her life. Sara had always loved her grandmother the best. And Betty threw Sara out of the house for accidentally leaving the oven on one night. Joan had been thrown out long before, for pretending to go to college when she wasn’t really. And then Betty threw Jack out of the house for getting old on her.

We’re different things to different people.

Kelli didn’t understand when both Joan and Sara became estranged from their mother. She thought Betty was a hoot. Always laughing. A giggly drunk, but then Kelli always went home before Betty got mean and slurry. She didn’t know that Sara had gone to counseling and came away with the realization that she couldn’t be around her mother if she continued to drink, so she gave her an ultimatum: there’s no relationship here if you continue to drink, Mom.

And Betty said then I guess there’s no relationship.

Kelli thought that Betty’s daughters were high-strung or something, overly sensitive. By now she was in her twenties and only saw Betty at her best, when entertaining at the house or at the lakeside cabin she and Johann had bought together. And whenever she asked Betty why she was estranged from her daughters, Betty said she didn’t understand it, there was no reason she could think of, other than the fact that they had lost their father when they were so young and might be troubled by that. She never told Kelli about life with the girls in that house. It’s possible she didn’t remember much about it.

It’s also possible that Kelli didn’t realize her father was a Nazi Youth.

But Kelli genuinely liked Betty, and Betty and Johann were happy together, so it all just seemed kind of sad, that Sara and Joan couldn’t be part of it. And the years went by.

As Betty got older and sicker herself, and Johann eventually died, Kelli took it upon herself to be something of a daughter to Betty. She helped her around the house, ran errands for her. She was a good listener. It was fairly easy to play this role too – it didn’t require that much of her. And around the time Betty turned eighty, she told Kelli that she was grateful to her for everything she did and wanted to make her the sole beneficiary of her will.

Her daughters had rejected her, after all, and Kelli was the closest thing to a daughter she’d ever have now.

We’re different things to different people.

Sara always knew she had made the right decision, to demand that Betty become a better person so they could have a relationship. And when Betty said no, there was nothing to do but stay away from her. But she also always thought that Betty would understand what Sara had done, in caring for Jack all through her mid-twenties. She had fulfilled a responsibility that should have been Betty’s, and Betty had never acknowledged it. And whenever someone said something like, You should reconcile with your mom, Sara would say, You don’t know what it was like.

To Sara, Betty was an ogre who would have shattered her entire being.

To Kelli, Betty was a hoot, and then a saint, because she bequeathed to her a two-million-dollar house, the house where Sara and Joan had grown up with an alcoholic, unstable mother who resented the fact that she was saddled with two daughters and took it out on them all through their childhoods.

Now the diagram looked like this:

I am imagining what Kelli knew and didn’t know, but I think what I’ve imagined makes sense. I’ve seen similar things before, in cases of divorce when the second families do a lot better because they’re free of the pain that corrupted the first.

As for what Sara felt and thought – I know all that because I am Sara.

Kevin Brennan is the author of five novels and Editor of The Disappointed Housewife.

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