My 21st birthday was not at all how I imagined it would be when I was 15 years old. There was no big dinner at a fairly upscale restaurant (I’m talking Olive Garden) with a big chocolate cake and buttercream frosting. No strawberry daiquiri with dinner, no foofy cocktail napkins and little umbrellas speared with wedges of fruit. I didn’t go out to a bar with my friends, drinking beer that I despised the taste of until 2 am. No one even asked to see my ID, because no one had any reason to.
An still, even though my birthday was nothing like what I’d pictured at 15, it was still perfect in its own way. I did the dished as soon as I woke up because the world no longer stops just because it’s my birthday. I wrote in my journal, saying goodbye to 20 until I went to take my sister out of school at 11:15 am. During the drive to Busch Gardens, I ate stale 3-ingredient banana, oatmeal, and cinnamon cookies while singing along to Sheryl Crow. We rode roller coasters until we were dizzy, which didn’t take long because there were no lines for anything. My sister serenaded me with moving Mary Kate and Ashley lyrics from their Michelle Tanner days on endless repeat. “I’m am the cute one…she’s just my sister” over and over again until I was singing along with her. I bought her overpriced pizza and ice cream while I ate pasta out of my thermos. All the while, friends from all stages of my life were sending me their happy birthday wishes online. One guy I went to school with, for example, who has very different politics than I do still sent me, “I hope you have an absolutely wonderful day,” which was a nice and much-needed reminder that kindness can transcend politics. I appreciated every single message I received, especially since I am horrible at remembering to send them to other people on their birthdays.
My sister and I left the theme park with tired legs just before the rain started. Usually a bummer, the rain on this day was comforting because it always rains on my birthday. It almost isn’t my birthday unless it does. We went to Kroger and bought carrots and a birthday melon before heading home to watch the movie Pleasantville. My mom came home as the movie was ending. I’d told my friends that morning that I didn’t think she’d gotten me anything for my birthday because we hadn’t discussed it. At lunch, my sister had let slip that “Mom went all Leslie Knope for your birthday,” which – if you haven’t seen Parks and Recreation – basically told me that mom went above and beyond for this one.
I was sitting on the couch when she lifted a big gray cloth basket beside me. She handed me a wrapped gift, which I could tell was a book. I opened it to find The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. Mom has wanted me to read this book for years, and I’ve never gotten around to it. But this copy of the book is special. She asked me to flip to the inside cover, where I found a beautiful message, explaining to me what the other book-shaped gifts in the basket were. The following is an excerpt:
You and your siblings will most surely be the talisman that will bring me the most magic on this journey of mine. I feel so utterly amazed that I am lucky enough to be your mother. You have no idea how proud I am of each of you, and proud in different ways.
I hope you enjoy these 21 gifts as you celebrate this special birthday. These 21 people/books represent people past, present, and future that you have or will touch with your beautiful spirit. None of them are more grateful than me. Because I love you.
I was terribly confused by this point, but I realized that something momentous was happening to me. I reached for a wrapped book and found beneath the paper a book from my best friend from middle school, Grace (Hannah) Showalter. She recommended In the Shadow of a Man, by Jane Goodall. Though we haven’t talked much in years, I was so happy to see her included in this. We were best friends through a hard time in her life, when her father passed from cancer, and together we listened to Pink Floyd hours. She was the first person who made me realize the world was bigger than our hometown, and now she’s off to get her P.hD in Anthropology in Arkansas. I’m incredibly proud of her and I can’t wait to read this book with her and her future working with primates in mind. To Grace I say, thank you.
From Angela Hyldburg, my supervisor at Champlain College Career Services, I opened Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult. In it, she wrote, “As you continue to travel through your amazing life, remember that it will not always be easy or glamorous, but with persistence and faith all things will be possible. I hope you enjoy this thought-provoking book. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your incredible journey these last three years. I look forward to what is next in your senior year. You are truly an inspiring young woman and the sky’s the limit on what you can accomplish.” Angela is incredibly important to me because when I first went off to college, I had just gotten sick with my yet-undiagnosed chronic disease, and she filled the mom role for me until I was strong enough to stand on my own. For that, I will be forever grateful. Thank you, Angela.
Briana Landrum, one of my first (and perhaps only) friends at Clover Hill High School recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This took me by surprise because Briana doesn’t seem like a Steinbeck kind of woman, but, remarkably, I haven’t read this book yet. In fact, I haven’t read any – save for one – of the books I received as gifts. Briana was a friend for me when I had just moved in my junior year of high school, and she let me cry in the front seat of her car while we ate french fries when life got hard. I will always be grateful for the brief time we were inseparable (she even moved in for a while and had her own bedroom). I hope we can reconnect this summer. Thank you for being part of this, Bob.
One of the most influential people I’ve ever met was also asked to participate in this gift. Heather Curran was my English teacher for both years I went to Clover Hill High School. She gave me my first memoir – still my favorite and most treasured book – and instilled the confidence in me to become a writer. She gave me the courage to make the leap when I didn’t know if I could, and she is one of my best friends to this day. She recommended The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Heather made my mother cry with her inscription: “To Sarah, my “pen daughter,” Sharing with you the love of words, the joy of reading, the passion for writing has been an absolute highlight of my career. Having you as a friend gives me even greater joy. Love you. Mean it.” To Heather, thank you so much for being a part of my life. I am truly blessed that you came into it when you did, and I give you the credit for so much of the person I have become. Thank you.
Jenna Dickerson was one of my best friends at Clover Hill High School, and we bonded over writing articles for the school newspaper. We’ve lost touch – as time will do – over our college years- but Jenna is one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met, and I know that any time I wanted to talk, she would drop her life and come running. She recommended Rising Strong by Brene Brown PhD. Though I haven’t read her work, I have watched a TED Talk by Dr. Brown, and I was thrilled to see this when I opened it. Inside, Jenna wrote, “Happy 21st! I hope you know how incredible you are. The way you own your story of hardship is absolutely inspiring. Your strength and determination to never give up in spite of everything you have faced is truly amazing…I have so many good memories of journalism in high school and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have gotten to know you…So much love always, Jenna.” Hearing such words from your peers really does lift you up. So much of my strength comes from people like you, Jenna. I hope we can reconnect this summer. Thank you.
My brother Seth and I have lived apart for five years now, the same length of time I’ve lived outside of my home state of Indiana, where I did most of my growing. Despite, or maybe because, of the distance, I feel closer to Seth now than I ever have. I’m incredibly proud of the man he’s become, and I’m thankful to have a brother (and even more thankful it’s him). Seth recommended Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. I’m stoked to read this, mainly because my brother loved it, but also because in his inscription, Seth compared me to Thompson as a writer: “I want you to read this because you and Hunter have similar styles where you cleverly describe actual occurrences to you the point you can’t tell if it’s fiction.” Thank you, Seth, for not telling me that becoming a writer was the dumbest thing I ever did. Thanks for, instead, supporting the ever-loving shit out of me.
To Kalin Day, my best friend throughout most of my elementary and high school years, thank you. She recommended Lost Voices by Sarah Porter, the only book my mom was not able to find in second stores or Barnes and Noble. I will be ordering it online soon. Kalin lived just down the street from those years ago, and we spent endless nights together – usually at my house – and if not in person, talking on the phone or online. We grew up together, we went prom dress shopping together, we turned 16 together. There was nothing more fun than swimming late into the night in my pool, pretending to be mermaids, and fittingly enough the book she recommended is about mermaids too. She even came with me for the first month that I moved to VA, so I wouldn’t be alone. Kalin has lived through a lot of tough things in her life – she’s a tough cookie – and I’m incredibly proud of her and her recent decision to go back to school. I’m honored you were part of this gift, Kalin. I miss you.
I got to know Curt and Deb when I used to go boating on Lake Salamonie with my family every weekend during the summers growing up. I would sit on the front of their houseboat like I owned it, and talk about politics and life and writing. I baked them all sorts of goodies, back when I still loved to bake (and could eat my effort). These two – along with my other boating friends – gave me a second family I could come and go from. They encouraged and supported, and above all, love me at a time in my life when I needed it. Deb recommended Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I’d never heard of it until now, but it seems to be a book that celebrates womanhood and friendship and everything that goes along with it. While trying to decide which book to choose, Deb “tried very hard to narrow it down to one book from my collection. I pulled them out and leafed through pages reading areas I had used yellow highlighter on. I read the pages marked with the corners turned down and pages marked with ribbons and old newspaper clippings.” It was a labor of love, a labor that melts my heart. Inside she wrote, “I do not believe anyone who comes into your life is random. Everyone is there for a reason. I do not know why you came into ours, but I consider us lucky that you did. Have a great birthday, you sweet young thing! Your whole life is ahead of you and that is a wonderful thing!” Deb, please know that I consider myself the lucky one, and I will be happy if I become half the woman you are. I look up to you and love you very much. Thank you.
I don’t know Marie Turner very well. She is my mother’s friend, and I met her for the first time just before my mom started compiling the books for this gift. When I met Marie, she kept telling me I’m gorgeous, that I should model, which no one has ever said to me before. She made me feel very beautiful, and you can never have too many people in your life who make you feel that way. When mom told her about this project, she wanted to be part of it, as the “future” part of the friends past, present, and future whose lives I have or will touch in my life. Marie recommended The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, and included the inscription, “May your mind as well as your spirit always seek growth.” As someone who has experienced loss in the deepest way and manages to find the silver lining in everything, I appreciate this message from Marie. Deb also recommended this book, so I’m doubly interested and excited to see what I can learn from it. Thank you.
My Uncle Roger will tell you he’s my favorite uncle. As it happens, he is, but mainly because he is my only uncle. I rarely see him except for the occassional Indianapolis 500, or baseball game, or when I’m stopping over at his house in Pennsylvania on my way up to school, but he is an important person in my life, someone who has always supported me. He recommended The Art of War by Sun Tzu, because he believes that everyone can learn something from it. I will have to let you know if that is the case after I read it. Thank you for your love and support always.
Michelle Jackson is married to one of my cousins, Randy, and I was lucky enough to spend part of my Memorial Day weekend crashing their campsite this year. Sitting and catching up brought back so many childhood memories, and though they probably didn’t realize it at the time, it was the best day I’d had in a long time. It’s always a pleasure to catch up and connect with family you rarely see, and it’s amazing to see how all of us kids have grown. Michelle recommended Nicholas Sparks’ A Bend in the Road. If I’m at all a suck for his books the way I’m a sucker for his movies, I will enjoy reading this quite a bit. Thank you for being a part of this Michelle. Much love to you and the family.
A book I’ve been wanting to read for a while was recommended by Morgan Carr, a young woman I’ve watched grow up over the years into a beautiful, slightly clumsy swan who will no doubt change the world, and I was grateful to see its beautiful cover when I removed the wrapping paper. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an excellent read, I hear, and it’s especially impressive that Morgan has read it at thirteen. I am grateful that I have been able to get to know this young woman and be part of her life. I’m incredibly proud of her, and in a lot of ways, she reminds me of myself when I was thirteen. I can’t wait to see who she becomes. I’m rooting for you every step of the way. Thank you for being part of this.
Greg Carr is Morgan’s dad, and has been an important person in my life since I was sixteen years old. He has taught me many things in my life, but most importantly, he has helped me figure out who the kind of person I want to be. He is always supportive and quick to go out of his way to my family in way he possibly can. I’m convinced he’d go hungry before he let us go without. He recommended The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, a book I’ve also had my eye on for a while. He wants to be part of this gift partially because I’m usually the one recommending books to him. He gives a lot, and I’m hoping one day maybe I’ll be able to recommend enough good books to repay my debt. Thank you.
I’m named after my cousin Sarah Belle Whitmore, but she’s more like an auntie than anything. Sarah is truly the sweetest person I have ever met – could ever hope to meet – and is one of the reasons I keep believing that the sun will come out no matter how many cloudy days in a row we have. She’s engaged to Sam Keeble, a man who I’ve been know to call Jay Gatsby (as a compliment, just forget all that dying stuff). Sam is a joy to be around, and knows something about everything. He’s a walking miracle because he had an aneurysm some years back that should have killed him, and here he is, getting married into my family and studying to get his PhD. If there is anyone who’s life story I want to write, it’s Sam’s. He, fittingly, recommended F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but also thought I should read James Jocye’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially since he’s an Irish writer and I just spent four months in Ireland. In his inscription, he quoted a passage from the book, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us then, but that’s no matter…So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” For always making me think, and helping me remember how loved I am, thank you Sam.
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin was the book my sister, Emma, recommended for me. She’s not much of a reader (even though I’m hoping she will be someday soon; reading is everything), but she thought I would like this book, particularly because I like books and I also like music. I write about Emma pretty often, because I’m a proud sister and I love her, and I’m also worried about her in the same way a mother hen worries about her chicks. We’re seven years apart, enough years that I am always at a different stage in my life than she is, but not so many that we don’t always have something to talk about. If you talked to any of my friends, they would tell you that I gush about Emma, and love her in a way that only an older sister can. Thank you, Emma, for being part of this and spilling just enough about it on my birthday that I got really, happily confused.
Blake Michael is someone I have always respected. We went to high school in Indiana together, and he hosted Nerd Parties at his house every month so that all the anti-social people could get together and play weird board games and eat cheese puffs. I lived for those Nerd Parties, and I have so many great memories from them. Blake took me to see Bridesmaids when it was still out in theaters, on a day when the world was supposed to end according the Mayans (or something). I remember sitting in the back of his car hoping we wouldn’t vaporize in the middle of any punch lines. It was no surprise for me when Blake went to Cornell and graduated a year early with more degrees and distinctions than I could fit in a novel. He’s a once in a lifetime person, and I have no doubt he will be so incredibly successful it’ll blind me just to look at him. He recommended Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. He assumed I’d already read it, but in fact, I’m less well-read than I’ve fooled all you into believing. He writes, “Never be afraid to stand up for what you think is right, not only because it’s what keeps the world sane, but because you’re usually right.” He also told my mom to make his quote sound better, if she wanted, but she did not because direct quotes will sell for more when he’s famous. Thank you, Blake, for being not only incredibly smart, but also remarkably kind and humble. You are a legend to me already.
Before I moved to Virginia, I had the honor of studying with one of the best teachers Frankton Jr/Sr High School ever had the distinction (and good foresight) to hire. Kevin Cline taught my very first AP course in World History, and he pushed me to work harder than any teacher ever had before. And though I didn’t realize it, he was also instilling in me a deep love and respect for history and the way it shapes us and our world. When my mom reached out to him, he was thrilled to be part of this, and I am thrilled to know he remembers me (and my brother) so fondly. He recommended Ken Follet’s Ten Pillars of the Earth. He also figured that I might have already read it, but he would be assuming that I’m more well-read than I am (but I’m getting there). He loves this book because it highlights values like the “importance of love at the center of a well-lived life, the sacrifice needed at times to achieve one’s dreams, and the importance of realizing one’s destiny and working to achieve it.” To me he wrote, “As you forge ahead in this journey they call life, remember to stride forward boldly with eyes open, heads up, and heart full!” Thank you, Mr. Cline (or should I call you Kevin now??), for being a part of this. I am honored to say I learned in your classroom for a year. It truly made a difference. Huzzah!
Tim Brookes is one of those professors who scares the bleeding life out of you upon first meeting him, but turns out to be one of the most important people along your educational journey. Working as his assistant when he was directing the Professional Writing Program at my college was a continual learning experience, but it also let me get to know Tim personally. He has more brilliant ideas than anyone I’ve ever met, and he is quick to tell a story and even quicker to let me know his honest opinion. Tim recommended – and over-nighted – one of his own books, Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightment. I look forward to reading this book, and especially appreciate the inscription, done in his own calligraphy: “To Sarah, who will one day write better books than this.” I can’t even begin to find the words to say what an honor such a statement is. It shows me that Tim is incredibly selfless, hopeful, and above all, 100% (not 30%) supportive of me as a person and as a writer. His faith means everything. Thank you.
From my step-brother Patrick Draga, who will always be part of my life in some way, I received Stephen King’s The Stand. Patrick and I have quite a few years between us, and growing up, we weren’t very closer because we just didn’t know how to be. But he will always be my brother, even if not legally, and I will always care about him and wish him the best in life. I’m proud that he’s putting himself through engineering school, that he’s doing something with his very smart brain. For his inscription, Pat wrote, “Sarah you are a gifted writer and a wonderful person, and we are all so proud of what you’ve done with the first 21 years of your life!” It means a lot that he was part of this gift, as no one is more important than family at the end of the day. Thank you.
And to my trifecta of friends: I will start will Jess Demarest. Jess and I shared rooms (and practically beds) when we lived in Ireland together. Our worlds quite literally doubled in size while we were roaming the world together, and our friendship took hold in the cold bursts of rain that Ireland liked to dish out. I can’t believe she didn’t let any word at all of this project slip (other than asking me why my mom friend-requested her on Facebook). Jess recommended Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, a novel that combines historical fiction and my weird fascination with WWII. “Thank you,” she writes, “for sleeping uncomfortably close to me for four months, for trekking across Italy, and Belgium, and London by my side, for introducing me to the wonderful world of memoir, for spending countless hours lost inside bookstores with me, for always encouraging me, for making me laugh (and cry), for sharing your struggles (and triumphs). Mostly, thank you for being my friend.” Thank you, Jess, for being part of this gift, and part of the larger story of my life. We’re writing something beautiful, I just know it.
From Abbie Stoner, another dear friendship fledged by Ireland’s loving embrace, I received Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala. I credit (or blame) my feminist revolution on Abbie, and I’ve been meaning to buy and read this book for years. So she took all the effort out of it, (except, you know, the reading part). “I feel like Malala represents the basis of our friendship,” Abbie writes. “Women supporting women.” She writes a lot of other beautiful, funny, very-Abbie things (like saying I have a little potato-shaped heart), but this quote is the essence of our friendship, she is right. Abbie has taught me how to love women instead of stepping on them, and she has shown me how to love myself in many ways. Thank you, Abbie, for thinking I was cool from afar and for still thinking I am cool now that I sit way too close to you. Raise your wine glass full of milk if you feel me.
Lastly, Ben Lander was a fellow resident in my first year residence hall. I hated him. However, when we both became RAs, a friendship slowly took root, and now he is one of my best friends. He came to Italy with Jess and I, and I may or may not have helped him and Jess get together (you’re welcome). Ben is such a genuine person, and he always has something encouraging or uplifting to say even if his world is on fire and he just wants to sleep until 3 pm. He makes me smile without end and sends me posters of Parks and Recreations characters as cats for my birthday. In short, he is the perfect person to take road trips with (even if all my music is sad and I drive too fast), watch Breaking Bad with (I can almost forgive you for loving Walt so much), and conspire with on ways we can take over the world. He is a true friend. He recommended The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. “Everyone deserves a little fantasy, sometimes” he writes, “and this one should do nicely…A story that reads like music, despite never producing a sound. I hope you can hear it too.” Of course I can hear it, Ben. It means the world. Thank you.
As I sit here with all these books stretched out in front of me, as I read through all the correspondence between my mom and all these people in my life, I am humbled. Everyone she talked to was honored and excited to be a part of this with me, and I’m still in shock that she put all this together (especially as quickly as she did. Queen Procrastinator). I entire underestimated this woman, which I do often and never seem to learn from. Opening my books, I felt seen and understood. I never really wanted that 21st birthday party with an elaborate dinner and drinks at a bar; I wanted roller coasters and tangled hair with my sister. I wanted 21 books from 21 people who have touched my life, and whose lives I have touched. My mom couldn’t have given me a better gift than these, the gifts of knowledge and connection to people who are far away, down the street, some to whom I haven’t spoke in years, and some whom I hope to reconnect with soon.
There’s something magical about these recommendations. Not only did these 21 people have me in mind, but they were scanning their entire internal library, selecting a book from those they had personally loved. With each recommendation comes a piece of each person; these books will come to represent you, and because they’ve given them to me, the books also come to represent our connection through time, distance, and change.
So many others could have been part of this, people like Emily Imel, Micaela Walls, Amanda Wedegis, Sarah DeWitt, Larry Connolly, and Warren Baker. Please do not feel left out, for you have each unlocked a part of me I didn’t know existed. And I am a better person for it. Much love to you.
No matter what happens in our lives, I will always have these 21 books connecting me to these 21 people, and all the memories that make up 21 years of a life well-lived. I am making a pact to read all 21 of them, though I can’t promise how soon it will be. I am lucky to have a mother who cares so deeply about me and I am lucky to have someone – let alone 21 someones – who care about me, and who contributed to this gift and this life. Thank you.