Shel Silverstein’s controversial story about a tree that gives and gives to a boy that takes and takes always upset me. As a child I didn’t quite understand why the story made me sad, but I never enjoyed reading it. There was something about it that didn’t quite feel right. As a young adult I grew to loathe the boy. “Obviously,” I thought, “this is a story about a parent and their child. Why is that child so selfish? Doesn’t he ever grow up and do better for himself? He doesn’t even necessarily have to give back, but to eventually stop taking like a parasite would be nice!” I also doubted the mental capacity of the tree – at some point wouldn’t it realize the boy was taking advantage? But there was no realization by the tree, as Shel Silverstein insisted, “And the tree was happy.”
As time went on I sort of forgot about the story, tucked away in the dark recesses of my memory along with half-remembered nursery rhymes and how to skip rope without falling over. I went on to high school, then onto college, onto my first job and my first apartment. I saved up my money and moved across the country. I met a man and fell madly in love, married him, and we had a child together. Still the story stayed tucked away right out of sight in my mind.
My daughter had her first smile, her first laugh, her first finger foods. She learned to crawl and walk, how to climb stairs, how to cause my heart to race as she explored the world with that adorable lack of a sense of self-preservation that toddlers seem to have in spades. She developed an intense desire to eat whatever was on my plate, whether or not it was exactly the same thing that she had on hers. For three and a half years she has begged for food from my plate, like an adorable puppy with a full bowl who just knows that what you’re eating is better because you’re the one eating it. “Sharing is caring!” she intones to me as she holds out a hand, hoping for a bite of whatever I have, whether it be ice cream or broccoli. For three and a half years I haven’t managed to eat an entire meal while she was in the same room. I just can’t stop myself from giving when she asks it of me.
This is not the same as saying no to sweets or toys or TV time. That I have no problem doing, as she will grumpily attest. But if she asks for something that is only mine to give – the food on my plate or my time and attention, I simply cannot bring myself to tell her no. No matter what time she goes to bed, whether she is early or late or right on time, if she asks for a story and a song I can’t help but give them to her. She will only ask me for stories and songs for so long before she would rather be alone instead of with her mother. As far as I’m concerned she can have half of my dinner every night if she wants it, not because she needs it or wants it particularly but because it makes me so very happy to give it. And still, the story lay deep and forgotten inside of me. Until today.
Stumbling upon a mention of The Giving Tree on Facebook I immediately felt that sadness and frustration the story caused me as a child, but upon reading it again, this time from the perspective of the tree, I found the story was full of joy. The tree, after being stripped of its fruit and branches, left as nothing but a stump, wasn’t sad because it had no more left of itself, but was happy because even when worn down to nothing it was still able to give to the boy, now an old man. That deep, instinctive, primordial instinct to give to your child is the strongest force I have ever encountered in my time on this earth. No hurricane, no earthquake, no flood or drought will ever be as powerful as my need to give to my daughter, and no amount of money, power, or fame could ever come close to the joy I feel when I am able to give of myself to her.
The Giving Tree hasn’t changed. The illustrations and the words on the page are the same as they ever were. But I have changed, and that change allows me to find joy where once there was none. For this I am grateful. I am even more grateful that, one day, if she has a child of her own, I can share this story with her and know that she will feel the same joy I do. And I will be happy.
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