Some gifts offer effervescent delights, lasting no longer than the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Others—a cashmere sweater, a handbag—provide pleasure for a season or two. More durable gifts, like jewelry, are an everlasting reminder of friendship and love. And then there are those rare gifts that alter the courses of our lives. They transform the way we see ourselves, leading us to pursue dreams, ambitions and daily happiness in radically new ways. Below, 10 people share the gifts that changed their lives.
Emily Wise Miller
Live Happy web editor
Two years ago, surgeons opened my sternum, stopped my heart and replaced a faulty aortic valve with a mechanical one. Before this surgery, I’d been pretty active: running, doing yoga, training with weights. During the recovery, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck; I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t even reach for a bottle of milk on a high shelf. After a couple of months, I felt well enough to go on walks and short, easy hikes. It would be another six months before I could do yoga and almost a year before I returned to running and weights.
Even then, a deep sense of fatigue persisted. I could barely go half a day without napping. Then, in February 2014, after years of working freelance, I joined Live Happy as the web editor. I was thrilled, but the added stress of starting a new job gave me less time for exercise. I gained weight and developed lower back pain and even high blood pressure.
I knew something had to change. Once I started seeing a trainer and exercising again, I began daydreaming about the years my husband and I lived in Florence and traveled everywhere by bicycle. There is nothing like the feeling of riding across the Piazza della Signoria at night, almost empty except for the towering replica of Michelangelo’s David. My husband and I would look at each other on our one-speeds thinking, “We’ll never see or feel anything like this again.”
For my birthday last March, my mother bought me a bicycle—a silver hybrid Trek small enough for my 5-foot frame. It was cute, cool and sporty. I was ecstatic! At first I just rode around the neighborhood with my kids. Then I moved on to nearby trails. Soon I was riding seven miles, then 10 and 15. I was hooked on the feeling of being on a bike. It’s both meditative and fun, a kind of energetic flow state. I began pushing myself in ways that I never had, even before surgery.
Now, two or three mornings a week, I go for 20-mile rides, traversing the urban creeks and forests of Dallas while the city is still half-asleep. The gift of a bicycle pulled me out of my a negative spiral. When I get back from a 20- or 30-mile ride, I feel competent and strong, happy and free.
San Antonio, Texas
My grandpa has always been the unofficial family photographer, and every week from the time I was 6 or 7 until my grandfather passed away when I was 16, I’d go with him to the local Kodak store to get his film developed. When I was 8, my grandparents bought me a camera—a small, wind-up Fuji.
From the moment I got it, that camera was strapped to my hip. I’d take it to school, to the grocery store, to the playground. I’d take pictures of everything: my dog, my two sisters—we’re identical triplets—coke bottles. I got pretty good at taking photos, and when people started offering to pay for my services, I began thinking that maybe I could turn something I love into a career.
Today, I have my own business as a wedding photographer. I shoot with a fancy top-of-the-line Canon these days, but it all began with that Fuji.
Heather Rae Johnson
GIFT: RED VELVET CHAIR
In 1995, my boyfriend, John, fell to his death down a freight elevator shaft. That Christmas our friends got together in the apartment that John and Warren, his roommate, had shared. There were about 12 of us. We had gotten each other silly inexpensive gifts, like art deco ashtrays and beer mugs. Since there were so many gifts, we decided that each person would sit in the middle of the living room, blindfolded, while we piled the gifts around them. Then, they’d take off the blindfold and open them all.
My friend Blair and I did a lot of antique store shopping that year. One afternoon I came across a gorgeous red velvet chair. It was $125. I passed it by because I had gifts to buy for others. The next week Blair said, “I went to that same store and your chair was gone.” Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
At the party, it was my turn in the hot seat. When Warren took off the blindfold, there in front of me was a single gift: my pretty red chair! Everyone had pitched in, and Blair had gotten it for me. I cried. After going through something so terrible, losing someone I cared about so much, that little red chair reminded me, and still does, of the value of friendship and how good friends can come together and help each other through the absolute worst.
Author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and many other books
GIFT: FRENCH LESSONS
Back in the late 1960s my husband, Milton, who speaks flawless French, gave me the very expensive gift of a week of total immersion at Berlitz. He was determined to spur me—who spoke zero French, flawless or otherwise—to share his knowledge of this beautiful language.
As I recall it, the course involved five days of private, intensive lessons all day and all in French, with the hope that it would give me a jump-start in learning French, after which I would continue to study in more conventional ways. During that total immersion week I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life…but, alas, got nowhere. At the end of the course I was called into the Berlitz office. And there I was told, more in sorrow than in anger: “ ‘Madame Viorst, you have remarkable stamina. But’…long pause followed by a sigh…‘no talent for languages.’ ”
Freed by this verdict from my husband’s nagging and from ever having to study French again, I decided that I would concentrate on English, in which I now have written 43 books.
Emmy-winning costume designer
for Saturday Night Live
GIFT: MY BOOK ABOUT ME BY ME, MYSELF
I was 6 years old when my father gave me My Book About Me as a Christmas present. I was already drawing a lot, and this book gave me focus. I’d go through the pages and with a bright orange crayon I followed the directions to do things like trace my hands and my feet. I’d pay close paid attention to myself, noticing things like which foot was bigger. There were also pages where you’d write about yourself. I wrote, ‘I am 6. I’m right-handed. I have straight blond hair and a long nose.’ I also kept a list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. My list included plumber, fireman, chef, astronaut and fashion designer.
I was growing up in small-town Indiana with three brothers, a father who was a corporate lawyer and a mom who was a nurse. There weren’t many kids in Carmel, Indiana, who wanted to be a fashion designer, but that book helped me claim my own identity and my own ambitions. I went on to study costume design at the Yale School of Drama. I’ve been the costume designer at Saturday Night Live since it began in 1975. I’ve also been the costume designer for 30 Rock, House of Cards and lots of Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
A few years ago I rescued My Book About Me from my parents’ basement and brought it home to my New York apartment. Every now and then, I look through the pages. As you get older, the self-doubts become louder and louder, but seeing my childhood drawings and notes in that book reconnects me with how filled with possibilities we all are as children. It’s a good reminder that it’s never to late to become what you want to be in life.
GIFT: AN UMBRELLA ROD
When I was 15, my family was in Puglia, Italy, where we typically spent our summers visiting family. I was sitting in the kitchen watching my Great Aunt Rosa make pasta by hand. This was something I’d seen her do many times, but in this instance she grabbed a thin metal, square-shaped rod out of a drawer. She started twirling it in the dough, making these gorgeous pasta shapes. I had never seen anything like it and asked her what the rod was called and where I could buy one. Aunt Rosa laughed and informed me it was a rod from her mother’s umbrella. She said the square edges made perfect pasta shapes. I continued cooking with her all summer, learning more of her great techniques.
The day we were flying back to America, Aunt Rosa gave me a gift wrapped in simple paper: It was her precious umbrella rod, or rather “pasta maker,” handed down from her mother.
Account manager for digital ad agency
GIFT: BONE MARROW
Four-year-old James Strejc will tell you that the best present he ever got was his red Lightning McQueen bicycle. His parents, Stephanie and Nick, would choose another gift: the life-saving bone marrow that was donated by a stranger, Kayla Hammergren, a recent Boston College graduate. “Without Kayla,” Stephanie says, “we might not have this healthy, happy child.”
When James was about 18 months old, he developed a troubling set of symptoms: He stopped eating, would sleep about 20 hours a day and had unexplained bruises. For weeks, doctors said James had just a garden-variety ear infection, but after Nick and Stephanie brought him to the emergency room with a raging fever he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. “It was heartbreaking,” Stephanie says. “We were in pieces.” Treatment would be six rounds of chemotherapy, with a 30-day hospital stay for each round. Nick and Stephanie, who pretty much moved into Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, marveled at their toddler’s resilience.
“Just a couple of days after each treatment,” Stephanie says, “he’d be riding around the hospital on his scooter while Nick and I followed with his IV pole.” Right before his second birthday, James relapsed, with leukemia cells showing up in a brain tumor. He would again need chemotherapy, this time followed by radiation. And if he were to survive, another step was critical: a bone marrow transplant. Neither Nick nor Stephanie, or any of their friends or family who stepped forward as possible donors, turned out to be a match. “We knew we’d have to depend on the grace of a stranger,” Stephanie says.
Meanwhile, Kayla had registered as a bone-marrow donor her sophomore year in college. One of her best friends, Michael, had lost a brother to leukemia, and he was organizing a donor drive for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. “I thought ‘What if someone I loved got sick, and there was no one there to help them?’ ” she says.
Five months later, Kayla got a call from Gift of Life. A 2-year-old boy was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia and she was a potential match. A week before Christmas 2013, Kayla was wheeled into a surgical suite at Boston’s Dana Farber Hospital. A few days later, James received her bone marrow.
In April, Kayla met James and his parents at the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation Walk for Life 5K in Boston. “They brought us up on the stage first,” Stephanie says, “and then I saw this young woman in the front of the crowd starting to cry. I nudged my husband and said, ‘That’s her.’ When Kayla came up she gave us all big hugs, and we were all crying happy, grateful tears. James immediately took her hand. He knew she was the someone special who had gotten a big poke and given him something that had made him better.”
Kayla says she’s received a gift every bit as remarkable as the one she gave: “Seeing how happy James and his family are was just the greatest feeling in the world. They’re going to be in my life forever and that brings me amazing joy.”
Founder of talvodesigns.com
GIFT: SEWING MACHINE
I was 22 and shopping for Christmas gifts for my 1-year-old son at Wal-Mart when I saw a Brother sewing machine. I was into collage and scrapbooking—I’d just started teaching a scrapbooking class—and I thought, “Oh, I’d love to learn how to sew.” I bought the sewing machine as a Christmas gift for myself, but a day later, I felt guilty—money was tight—so I returned it. I told my mother about it; saying it was just not the right time for me to be buying things for myself. My then-husband, son and I were staying at my parents’ house that Christmas, and on Christmas Eve a big box appeared under the tree. I knew immediately what it was and my eyes filled with tears.
When I got pregnant at 20 I’d given up a lot of my dreams; this was the first time in a long time I had something that was just mine. Then in 2011, when I was going through a divorce, I started a company making eco-friendly toys for special needs children. It was a way of my regaining the confidence I’d lost and also helping not just myself and my child, but the community.
I’d never really thought of my sewing as much more than a hobby, until it was the only thing I could rely on. A couple of years ago I started a new online store, Talvo Designs, where I sell custom-made bowties—my son loves them!—and handmade men’s grooming products. That first sewing machine gave me a way to express myself; it gave me strength; and it gave me a career.
GIFT: A PAINTING
My mother died at the beginning of my sophomore year in college, and I transferred to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia so I could commute to school and help my dad take care of my 10-year-old sister. One of the professors who most influenced me was the painter Roger Anliker. When he was teaching us egg tempera painting, he brought in an example of his own work. The painting, called Millay, was a portrait of a young girl looking out a window. It was only about 9½ by 10 inches and the theme was a simple one, but I immediately fell in love with it.
When I graduated a couple of years later, my dad handed me a beautifully wrapped box and inside was Millay. I burst into tears. I moved into a tiny apartment after college, and I remember thinking, “I’m going to wait until I have a really great place to hang this painting.” The painting stayed in the box for two years and then late one night I hung it. Instead of waiting for the perfect time and place I decided that night and that apartment, humble though it may have been, was perfect enough.
Millay hangs in the living room of my home today, and it’s still the most beautiful piece of art in my small collection. More importantly, it taught me how living with art can elevate one’s everyday life. Today, I’m a working paper sculptor, and I seek to help people achieve the same joyful experience that Millay has brought to my family and me for so many years.
Shelley Levitt, editor at large for Live Happy, is a journalist living in Southern California.