Juanita Manz

Grandpa’s House

    We are on our way to Grandpa's house.  He lives by the cow farms in Norco.  To get there, you have to take Euclid Avenue all the way south.  It takes about an hour and I always get carsick from the winding road.

    Annie tries to claim the front seat.  She outruns me to my mom's Pinto and puts her hand on the passenger door handle.  She is only eight to our ten but she knows the rules. Oldest always gets the front seat unless you tag and call it.  I am older than my twin Jackie by nine minutes and claim my birth right.  From catechism, I know the story of Cain and Abel and that being first out means something.

    "You twins sit in back," my mom says.  Annie is the youngest and the most favored.  Not this time, I think to myself.

    "But mom, you know I get carsick, just like you do.  When I sit in the back, my head spins.  I could throw up," I say in a matter of fact voice. 

    My mom nods her head at me.  She knows I am prone to vomiting when carsick or nervous.  I had thrown up on our dentist a couple of years earlier when he had tried to put a foul smelling fluoride on my teeth.  He never let my mom or me forget it.

    "There she is," the dentist would say with a funny grimace whenever he saw me.  "You didn't eat breakfast did you?"

    "Fine," my mom says.  "Jenny, sit in the front." 

    I stick my tongue out at Annie when my mom turns and gets in the car.   Annie wrinkles her nose.  Foiled.  On the way to Grandpa's house, Jackie and I fight as usual.  Jackie keeps on kicking the back of my seat.  She keeps kicking and kicking until I turn around and swat at her.

    My mom glares at us.  "Stop it or I will fucking pull over."

    When she gets mad my mom's eyes turn dark.  Jackie stops kicking.

    The scenery flies by.  I forgot my book at home and play with the radio.  Right now I am reading Gone with the Wind for the third time.  I read it a couple of years ago but didn't understand everything.  I tested at a high school reading level.  I plan on making my way through the famous authors alphabetically.  When I have a favorite book, I read it over and over.  My mom says all us girls are gifted and that it comes from her side of the family. 

    I know we are getting close when I get a whiff of the thick smell of manure.  Jackie and Annie are plugging their noses in the back seat laughing. 

    "It smells like the bathroom after Dad takes a poop," Annie says. 

    We all crack up and even my mom smiles.  My mom is nicer on these trips.  We get to see a different side of her.  She is not stressed out or arguing with my dad about what time he got home, where he went or who he was with.  It is almost as if we get to see my mom as her best self.  I never want to leave Grandpa's house because I know that when we get home the nice mom will be gone.

    We pull up to Grandpa's house.  His house is on about half an acre and weeds cover the front yard.  My mom mutters, "My god damn brothers should come out here and clean his yard." 

    My mom is the only one who visits regularly.  She says it's because she lives the closest.  My mom's sister and all of her brothers live in Orange County.  We come every Saturday.

    I think we visit often because Grandpa is our only grandparent.  My dad's mom and dad passed away a long time ago and my mom's mother died when she was young.

    "He's the only grandpa you got so be nice to him," my mom says as we pull up to the house. 

    Dust spirals around the car as she parks the Pinto next to the chain link fence that surrounds the property.   Grandpa is outside waving at us when we pull up.  He is over eighty and stands on the porch stooped over and wrinkled.  He always wears a flannel. 

    We each kiss his cheek.  He smells musty.  My mom pats Grandpa's shoulder when she sees him and says hello to him.

    "Hola poppa," my mom says in a soft, little girl voice. 

    "Hola Judy," he croaks back.

    Grandpa's voice is low and he only speaks in garbled Spanish.  My mom seems to understand him perfectly.  He bends down and kisses Annie's head and says "bonita". 

    We all know that means pretty even though we don't speak Spanish. 

    "It's your dad's fault you don't know Spanish," my mom says.  "Your dad told me not to teach you because that way you couldn't make fun of him in Spanish like my brothers do."

    My mom's brothers call my dad a gringo borracho.

    "Twins say hi to your grandpa," my mom orders.

    "Hi Grandpa," Jackie and I say in unison. 

    Grandpa pats our shoulders, "Hola gemelas." 

    I sit down on the couch, which is covered with a knitted blanket.  The house is dusty and smells like cigarette smoke.  Grandpa gets his cigarettes out of a small wooden box.  It looks like a straw dispenser and when you press down on the lever a cigarette comes out.  We love playing with it and Jackie and I take turns pressing down on it until my mom gives us a sharp look.

    Grandpa wasn't very nice to my mom when she was young. 

    "He didn't pay me any mind after my mother died," she says.  "He just threw me away." 

    As my mom tells it, her mother was old when she had her and had diabetes.  She died when my mom was fourteen.  My mom tried to throw herself in her mother's coffin at the funeral. 

    My mom always says how sweet and nice her mother was.  When my mom talks about her mother, she gets a look on her face that I can't describe.  It's the look I picture on Scarlett O'Hara's face when she talks about Tara. 

    My mom says that after her mother died, everything changed.  Her dad put her in a convent because he had a new weda girlfriend before her mother was even in the ground.  My mom hated the convent.  She said the nuns were mean to her and she missed her brothers and her sister Eva.  My mom kept on running away until her brothers finally convinced her dad to let her come home.  After she got back, my mom went wild.  Even though Grandpa treated my mom like that, she is still nice to him. 

    My sisters and I like visiting Grandpa because he always gives us change from his jar to take to the store down the street to buy candy.  We sit on the couch tapping our feet waiting for him to take down the jar which he finally does.   

    "Mijas," he says in his garbled voice, "Tu quires dinero para compra dulces?"

    I get the gist and say, "Si Grandpa," opening my hands.  He pours coin into my outstretched palms.  Jackie goes second and Annie goes last.  He lets the jar linger a bit over Annie's palms and Jackie and I give each other a look.  We know what's happening here. 

    I whisper in Jackie's ear, "Don't worry, we will make everything even on the way to the store."  Jackie nods. 

    The three of us walk down Grandpa's dusty road.  The liquor store is only a couple of blocks away.

    Annie resists pooling our coin.  "It's all mine," she whines.  Annie loves money.  She hoards it. 

    "No, it's ours," I state as if it's fact.  "Everything should be even steven. It's only fair."

    Jackie chimes in, "Yeah Annie.  Be fair." 

    Annie hesitates for a moment but knows she doesn't have much of a choice and nods her agreement.

    Outside the store, I count our pooled change and we each score a little over a dollar in quarters and dimes.  I buy a big bag of five cent candies, some cotton candy and a Coke.  Annie gets a A & W Root Beer, gum and a Snickers.  Jackie gets a Big Hunk, an ice cream and copies me by getting a Coke.  We walk back to Grandpa's house in a single file line.  The cows moo at one another at the dairy across the street.  We stand in front of the dairy watching them. 

    "How long do you think we will stay today?" Jackie asks me.  "Maybe we can get mom to stop by the creek after." 

    "You ask her Annie," I order.

    My mom is making Grandpa some canned soup when we get back.  We sit in the living room and pile our candy on the table.  Wrappers are scattered on the floor around us.  My grandpa eats slowly, spoon after spoon.  My mom doesn't hurry him.  She is only patient with Grandpa.

    My mom makes coffee and sips it at the table talking to Grandpa in Spanish.  My sisters and I cluster together on the couch watching PBS on his little black and white TV.  The picture is grainy.  After a couple of hours, my mom gives us the sign it's time to go by flipping off the TV. 

    We pile back in the car and watch my mom say goodbye to her dad.  They don't hug.  Mom just pats Grandpa on the shoulder.  She turns around to look at him in his doorway as we drive away.

    "Bye Grandpa," we shout out the windows of the Pinto.  I have the front seat again.

    "Bye Mijas," he gargles back in his thick accent.

    When we turn the corner, Annie asks my mom if we can stop at the creek and she says yes.  Mom is happy.  She gets out of the car and sits on a rock reading her True Story magazine.  We wade in the creek with our pants pulled up to our knees. 

    As if a switch was pulled, my mom snaps back to her other self.  "I wonder if your dad's home from the bar," she says with a twist of her head.  I see the darkness returning to her eyes as dusk falls in the sky.  We pile into the car.  "I don't want to go," Jackie argues.

    "Get in the car now," my mom says her voice rising.

    "Just get in the car Jackie. I'll sit with you," I plead.  Jackie gives in.  I sleep the whole way home in the back seat.

    Grandpa dies a couple of years later in October of 1983, my seventh grade year.  I miss going to visit Grandpa.   It wasn't just the candy.  The candy helped but it was the way he looked at us, like he was smiling with his eyes and the way my mom was around him.  She is never like that anymore.

    On Halloween, my dad decorates the house with gravestones in the front yard.  The gravestones make my mom cry.  In his will, Grandpa leaves his house in Norco to my mom. 

    My dad says she should keep it all for herself and tries to convince her.

    "Judy, your brothers and sisters didn't rarely see him.  Keep the house for the girls," he says pointing at us.

    My mom tells my dad that they're selling the house and that it wouldn't be right to keep all the money from its sale.  She splits the money with her sister Eva and all her brothers. 

    "Even Steven," my mom says.  "That's how things should be."

    Later, my mom grumbles to my dad that her family took all the furniture and didn't leave much, not even Grandpa's little cigarette box. 


Juanita Mantz is a Latina writer who was raised with her two sisters in a chaotic household in Ontario, California.  After dropping out of high school at seventeen, Juanita took her GED and waitressed to support herself through college. Juanita eventually graduated from UC Riverside magna cum laude with a degree in English Literature and from USC Law School. 

After her father died in 2006, Juanita moved back back home to the Inland Empire and works as a Public Defender in Riverside.  She is working on her young adult memoir, "My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories", of which this piece is an excerpt.  Her stories have been published in the AS/US literary journal and in California Lawyer magazine.    She writes a blog detailing her adventures in the Inland Empire at http://wwwlifeofjemcom-jemmantz.blogspot.com/.