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.