A steaming plate of pancakes was sitting on the end table by the couch when I came out of the shower the next morning. Beside it was a tray with silverware, syrup, and butter. Jerome was singing Christmas carols in the kitchen in a voice that sounded almost exactly like Louis Armstrong.
“Mornin’, Walter,” he called, pausing mid-phrase when he heard me. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Jerome.”
“Eat up before your pancakes get cold. There’s plenty more on the way.”
I picked up the fork and dug in. “I have to save some room for Emily’s cinn-” I said, stopping short when the pancake entered my mouth. “Wow. These are amazing.”
Jerome smiled and kept singing under his breath. “Above thy dark and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…”
“What’s the secret?” I asked.
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. But it’s my uncle’s recipe. Perfect at Christmas with anything, and perfect in the summer with fresh berries and cream – you’ll have to have them again then.”
“I think I could have these any day.”
Jerome laughed. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
“Is Christmas different for Christians?” I asked, thinking about the meaning of what Jerome was singing in relation to what I had recently learned about God.”
“Mmm-hmm. For Christ is born of Ma-a-ry...” He flipped a pancake. “It’s not about the presents or Santa or all the traditions. It isn’t really even about Jesus’ birth. But different Christians see it differently and celebrate or don’t celebrate differently. I see it as an opportunity to spend extra time thinking about why Jesus came – looking ahead to the cross. That’s the whole reason He came, the only way His birth means anything at all.”
“So what do presents and trees have to do with anything?’
Jerome shrugged. “That’s where people disagree. Some say they’re brought over from pagan festivals, others that Christians used them first. I don’t do a tree. Some do and tie it into eternal life, others just do it from tradition – like I do gifts.” He poured more batter into the pan. “Speaking of which, there’s something for you on the table there.”
I walked over to the table, where there was a small, neat pile of presents. One labeled “Walter” was on top, with two for Ema and one for Emily underneath.
“Should I wait until we’re all together?” I asked.
“It’s up to you.”
“I’ll wait. And I have to go by my apartment to get what I have for you all. Though I didn’t have any wrapping paper.”
“That’s alright, you’re a bachelor,” Jerome said.
“So are you, and yours are wrapped.”
Jerome said nothing, just kept singing his song. “O morning stars together, proclaim His holy birth…”
An hour and six pancakes later, we were on our way to the café. Snow had fallen the night before, and it looked like more was going to join us before the end of the day. We stopped by my apartment and I ran in to get the presents, and then we parked in front of the café.
The blinds in the café were closed, but we knocked on the door and a moment later Ema flung it open.
“Merry Christmas!” she shouted. “You’re just in time for cinnamon rolls! Mama is pulling them out of the oven!”
Christmas greetings went all around as we joined Emily in the kitchen. I started a pot of coffee while Jerome spun Ema in circles around him. Ema squealed and cried for more.
“Ema, don’t wear him out,” Emily said, setting a third pan of cinnamon rolls on the counter.
“I don’t eat that much,” I said, looking at all of the rolls.
“They freeze well,” Emily replied, drizzling glaze on two of the pans. “And you’ve never seen Ema and I eat cinnamon rolls.”
We sat down to eat, and for a long while no one said anything as we downed one sweet, gooey roll after another.
Then Jerome pulled out his bag of presents, passed them around, and sat back to watch us open them. For Emily there was a new cookbook – one she exclaimed she had been wanting for a long time. For Ema there was a miniature doll house with little rabbit dolls to go with it. And for me, there was a newsboy hat to match Jerome’s.
“The way you walk around with your head uncovered all the time, it’s a wonder you didn’t catch pneumonia, too,” Jerome said as I donned it.
“And just wait till Clara sees you in that,” Emily said.
I felt my face grow hot, but it quickly passed when Ema shoved a parcel into my lap.
“I made this for you,” she said.
I shook it. “Is it a scarf?”
“I can’t make a mug!”
“You can decorate one.”
I tore off the wrapping to find a drawing of Ema, Clara, and I at the piano, framed with painted popsicle sticks. Behind the piano were two other figures, Emily and Jerome. “All my favorite people in one place,” I said. “Thank you, Ema, it’s perfect.”
Ema grinned. “For you, Mr. Jerome,” she said, pushing another parcel at him. She had drawn him a similar picture, but instead we were all in a hospital room.
Then Jerome winked at Ema and she nodded. He reached into his bag and pulled out a present I hadn’t seen before. Ema took it and handed it to Emily.
“This is yours, Mama.”
Emily looked surprised.
“Mr. Jerome helped me.”
Emily unwrapped the present. Inside was another popsicle-frame drawing, only this one was of Emily, Ema, and a Hispanic man – Javi.
“It’s us and papa,” Ema said. “And this,” she tugged at a chain. “Is for you to put a picture of all of us in. It’s called a lock-it-up.”
“A locket,” Emily said, blinking quickly, her hand over her mouth. “Thank you, Ema.” She held Ema close. “And thank you, Jerome.”
He shook his head. “It was all Ema’s idea. I just helped her pick it out.”
A few minutes later, Emily stood up. “One last round of presents.”
“Actually, two,” I said, reaching for my gifts. Ema opened first, revealing a beginner piano book with the promise of lessons. Emily insisted Jerome go next, and he had a canister of my favorite loose-leaf tea. And then Emily opened hers: recordings I had made of our rehearsals for the soiree, complete with laughter over mistakes.
“I didn’t know what you’d like,” I said.
“This is a treasure,” she replied. “Really. Now. All of you have to open. Jerome first.”
She had gotten Jerome a leather-bound journal, and for me there was a handmade scarf to go with Jerome’s hat.
“You guys are scheming together,” I said.
“Just the mama instinct trying to keep you warm,” Emily said.
“Can I go now, mama?” Ema asked.
Emily nodded, glancing at me.
Ema ripped the wrapping paper off, only to find a box. She wrinkled her nose. “A box?”
“Open it,” Emily said.
Ema pulled out the doll, and her eyes widened. “Mama!” She said. “How did you know?”
I smiled, and shook my head a little at Emily.
“A little bird told me that you liked it best of everything at the market,” Emily said.
Ema climbed into Emily’s lap and flung her arms around her neck, kissing her. “Thank you, mama. This is the best Christmas ever!”