The best Christmas gift I ever received — or any kind of gift, for that matter — arrived Dec. 23 in a Priority Mail box from my sister in Florida.
The box, meticulously packed with Bubble Wrap and plastic-foam peanuts, was full of pottery shards from what appeared to have been coffee mugs. I assumed the plane that carried it must have crashed, judging from the extent of the damage. I hoped no one was hurt.
As I dug through the broken pieces looking (hoping) for cash or expensive electronics, I uncovered a precious jewel — a cassette tape — with a note held in place by a rubber band. The note said, "Give to David."
I instantly recognized the handwriting as belonging to my mother, who passed away in 1998. I figured my sister, Kim, must have found it Dec. 10, my mom's birthday, while going through mementos.
My mom, born Jean Dolores Niemi, was blind, the victim of both inoperable cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. But while she couldn't see the faces of her four children, she was gifted with incredible foresight.
She had a cassette recorder attached to both telephones in her Cleveland, Ohio, home. Because she couldn't see to write lists or directions — or the betting lines on NFL football games — she recorded things, including, as it turns out, phone calls from her children.
In 1994, when I moved from Ohio to Oregon, I did it by bicycle. I sold most of my belongings, shipped my clothes, fishing gear and other important items via UPS to an old college roommate who lived in Silverton, then chased them down on two wheels.
It took me 24 days to pedal across the continent, and I called my mom every day to let her know how it was going. As it turns out, she recorded those calls, and they were all on that tape buried amid the shattered mugs.
I didn't know that, of course, when I put on my coat and walked outside to my wife's Saturn, which contains our only cassette player. I mean, who has cassette players anymore?
I was almost in tears when I started the car and plugged in the tape. I didn't know exactly what I'd hear, but I knew it would be my mother's voice, which I hadn't heard for 12 years, two months and 28 days.
The tape didn't start with her voice, however. It started with mine. I was calling from a phone booth in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, describing how I'd pedaled 140 miles in 90-degree heat and ended my day with a swim along the Platte River.
That tape contained place names and details I'd long forgotten — things I'd sworn I'd always remember. I'd forgotten, for instance, the day I had overtightened my seat and broke the nut, which meant I had to pedal standing up for 30 miles to reach a hardware store where I could buy the parts to cobble a temporary repair.
I'd forgotten the people I met in a commune in St. Joseph, Mo., who fed me and filled my saddle bags with food. I remember being there, of course, but on the tape are their names and stories, with details of the songs they sang the evening and morning I was there.
Throughout it all, there's my mom, commiserating with me over the broken seat, encouraging me as I climbed through the Rockies and telling me how proud she was of what I was doing.
I was in tears as I started listening to that tape. When it ran out, I had a smile that wrapped clear around to the back of my head.
Thanks, Mom. You always could see farther ahead than I.
Joy Editor David Smigelski can be reached at 541-776-8784 or e-mail email@example.com.