Part II: Traditions
Andy stood over the kitchen garbage can, a big potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. It was Friday, late afternoon, and he was helping his mother make latkes. The crunchy potato pancakes were one of Andy’s favorite foods and helping his mother make them had become something of a tradition in years’ past. Still, he contemplated sitting this year out. Jake was old enough to finally be useful in the kitchen and Andy felt it was time to pass the torch. But when he found Jake dawdling instead of peeling, asking dumb questions like “how come Grandma’s have carrots in them and yours don’t?,” Andy took the peeler from his brother’s idle hands and went to work. His mother wouldn’t say it, but he was sure she was grateful.
It was already dark when the Greenbaums sat down to eat. They enjoyed a modest meal, nothing like the family feast which awaited them on Saturday. When they were finished and the plates were cleared, Andy and Jake left the kitchen for the dining room, where a brass menorah waited on a plate covered with tinfoil to catch the dripping wax. Eight candleholders stood in a row before a raised Star of David while the ninth candleholder formed a row of one in front. Andy’s mother had already put the first night’s candle, a red one, in the far right candleholder. Another, white candle, the eventual shamas (or helper), lay flat on the silver foil.
“Hanukah!” Jake yelped excitedly. Andy, only slightly more composed himself, didn’t have the heart to tell him to calm down.
“Don’t forget your kippas, boys,” their father reminded him, his head already covered. Andy kept one beside his prayer book for Hebrew school and went to fetch it. When he returned, he found his brother wearing a brightly colored winter sock hat with a pompom at the end.
“You look stupid,” Andy told him.
“Nuh-uh,” Jake protested.
“Dad, make him take it off.”
“I think he’s OK wearing it tonight,” their father said. “But not tomorrow.”
“Definitely not,” their mother seconded.
With no further adieu, the family gathered around the menorah. Andy’s father struck a match, lit the shamas and passed it off to Andy, who was surprised to take the burning candle in his hand.
“Time to put your Hebrew to good use,” his father said.
Andy nodded, and, after a moment’s hesitation, began to read prayers from the candle box while setting the red candle ablaze. They were transliterated, but he focused on the Hebrew characters above the English text. He knew he needed to take this ancient, tricky language and make it his own if he stood any chance of getting through his Bar Mitzvah. The Hanukah prayers would be good practice. His voice wrestled with the syllables, but in the end, he nailed it, even the extra prayer for the holiday’s first night.
“Very nice, Andy,” his mother said as she took the dripping shamas and placed it in the holder.
Everyone scattered after that, each to retrieve a card or a gift. Andy had gotten his parents a picture frame and a small card to go with it. He wrapped it himself and kept it stowed in his closet for two weeks. It wasn’t much, but it was the best that he, 12 years old and devoid of income, could do. For Jake, he got gelt. The chocolate coins were likewise a cheapie gift, but he knew they would satisfy Jake just fine. His brother loved candy and it showed.
Moments later, with the candles burning a room away, the family regrouped in the living room to exchange gifts. Andy spotted two large packages, wrapped in white and blue paper. He had not forgotten about the diapers, obviously, but now he began to wonder if that would be it. Would they give them to him right here and right now, in front of Jake, or would he receive them later? Would they come in lieu of another gift or would they be a supplement?
Andy swallowed hard and forced his attention back to the ritual at hand. He and Jake both presented to their parents first. His picture frame elicited another “Very nice, Andy” from his mother and a “Thank you, son” from his father, while they both oohed and ahhed over Jake’s crappy arts-and-crafts collage as only parents knew how. Andy might have been mad about that, but what happened next erased all his animosity. He and Jake turned toward one another and simultaneously presented each other with identical bags of gelt! The entire family burst out laughing and it took them all a good moment or two to recover.
“This one is for the both of you,” their mother said, pushing one of the packages between them. Jake tore at the wrapping paper with savage abandon, revealing a brand-new Nintendo Wii.
“Wii!” he shouted. “Awesome!”
Andy felt himself grow excited too. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad sharing with Jake. If anything, he knew he would no longer be the worst player.
“I don’t want you to spend all day in front of this thing,” their father said. “The first sign of your grades going down, it’s going right in the closet. Understood?”
They nodded in unison and their mother handed them each an envelope. Inside was a card and a Toys R Us gift certificate.
“Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad,” Andy said.
“Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad,” Jake parroted.
“Jake’s is a bit more,” their mother explained. “Because Andy is getting this.”
She handed him the last remaining package and he took it with sweaty palms and baited breath. He knew what was inside, but he was still reluctant to open it. What if his father was right? What if it really WASN’T all it cracked up to be? Diapers were a dream for him, a fairy tale, and he was old enough to know those never came true. Still, he had to find out for himself. It was destiny, he thought, as he peeled off the paper.
Inside, Andy found a 20-count pack of Depend fitted briefs, a tub of wipes and a container of Johnson & Johnson baby powder. He ran his hand over the green bag of diapers, the plastic sending a small jolt to his fingertips. They were real, they were here and they were his. He was so happy he could cry.
Jake, on the other hand, was laughing. “Andy got diapers, Andy got diapers,” he taunted. It took some of the wind out of Andy’s sails, but it was to be expected.
“Jake, this is what your brother wanted,” their mother calmly explained. “He’s going through a…phase right now and there is no reason to be mean to him about it.”
“It wasn’t all that long ago that you were in diapers, mister,” she said. That shut him up. Jake had been a late trainer. He was three when he stopped having daytime accidents and he continued to wet at night for a few months thereafter.
“Satisfied?” their father asked.
“Mmm-hmm,” Andy said.
“Well,” his father said, clearing his throat. “As long as you’re happy.”
It was clear his father wasn’t entirely comfortable with the whole arrangement, but that made Andy love him even more. He knew that meant he cared.
“Dad, can you set this up?” Jake asked, pointing to the Wii. “I wanna play.”
“In a minute.”
Andy wanted to set the Wii up himself, to show that, despite the diapers, he was still capable of doing plenty. His mother, however, had other ideas.
“While they’re doing that, Andy, why don’t you come with me?” she said. She’d gathered up the bag of diapers and motioned for Andy to grab the rest of the supplies. Together, they retreated to the privacy of his room.
“How you choose to use these – if you choose to use these – is up to you,” she told him. “I only ask that you be sanitary. Wrap them up in a plastic bag when you change and for God’s sake, change regularly.”
“Yes, Mom,” Andy said. He felt like he was being talked down to. Was that part of it too?
“Now,” she said. “It’s been awhile, but I should still remember how to do this…”
“Mom?” Andy asked, confused. “Are you going to put a diaper on me?”
“Just this first one,” she said. “Just so you can see how it’s done. After that, it’s your responsibility.”
Andy nodded. So he wasn’t getting changed, after all. It wasn’t quite what he wanted, but, he reasoned, it was certainly good enough. Come to think of it, it was probably better this way. It was less for him to feel weird or guilty about.
Following his mother’s instructions, Andy disrobed and lay back on his bed. His mother unfolded the first of the briefs and slid it under him, the top even with his lower back. “Hmm…these are a little big on you,” she observed. “That means they’ll rise a little higher. Be careful not to let them ride too high in the back though.”
“I won’t,” he answered. Andy took in the rest of his mother’s advice while she powdered him. He was told to keep the tapes even and aim for a tight fit, but not TOO tight or the tapes would pop. She also told him to make sure the brief was fully unfolded, to avoid bunching.
“There,” she said, after pressing down the last of the tapes. “How’s that?”
“It feels good,” Andy answered. It did, too. Having a diaper around his waist seemed to suck all the tension right out of him. That he was Jewish, that he couldn’t throw a football to save his life, that he had a kid’s bike and unstylish clothes – none of it seemed to matter now. He had his diaper and he felt safe and secure, so much so that he began to wiggle around on his bed, oblivious to how dumb or strange he must look.
“You know,” his mother said, smiling down at him. “Maybe you’re onto something.”
She didn’t clarify the comment and he didn’t ask her to. He thanked her for the tips, pulled his pants back up and rejoined the rest of his family in front of the television. His dad had the Wii set up and Jake was busy crafting his Mii, a digital avatar, which, of course, looked nothing like him.
A few minutes later, Andy had his Mii ready to go as well and he and Jake took turns battling each other at Wii Sports, the system’s pack-in title. Maybe it was the diaper or maybe it was the lack of more experienced gamers to scrutinize him, but, for whatever reason, Andy found he was doing a lot better with the troublesome controller. He took three strokes to win his first round of golf, while it took Jake close to 10. Which, Andy had to admit, was about par for a 7-year-old.
“I don’t wanna play golf anymore,” Jake protested.
“You’re only saying that because you got your butt kicked,” Andy pointed out.
“Yeah, well you’re wearing a diaper!”
Andy jabbed him lightly in the arm, but agreed to switch sports nevertheless. It didn’t matter. He felt like he could do anything and be happy. It was as good as he felt in a long time and he wished that feeling could last forever. But on some level, he knew it would not. He had another seven nights to contend with and the next one would be spent with additional family.