Every time I looked out the window I couldn’t help but think of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. There were the branches, neatly bundled like kindling, as if ready to be sold by the boy who needed money. (Taking poetic license here. I know the boy sold the tree’s apples; but the neighbor’s dead tree is a maple.) Every so often the ground shuddered as another limb fell to earth; “Come boy,” I recalled the tree saying. “Take my branches and build a house so you can be happy…” The lumberjack began on the trunk. In ol’ Shel’s tale, the tree offered this final part of herself to the boy, grown now old and bitter. He hollowed out her trunk, made a boat and sailed away.
I was enchanted by The Giving Tree. Loved it, actually. Until I became a mother. What an ungrateful brat! What a masochistic tree! I heard an interview on NPR (where else?), that Silverstein wrote the book to spoof Jewish mothers who give and give and give, oblivious when giving crosses into taking territory. The spoof became a canonical tale of selflessness, earning Shel money enough to sail ’round and ’round the world. I hope he sent his mom postcards.
Such a fine line we walk, giving to those whom we love so much so much, eventually learning to save something for ourselves, too. It feels good to give; it feels wonderful to be there, to have the answers, to offer up exactly what is needed at just the right moment.
Why didn’t the tree say, “Boy, you can take some of my branches. But only some. I need them too — to scratch my trunk when my bark gets itchy, to enjoy the tickle of the wind when the breezes blow cool through my leaves.” Would it have subverted the order of the world had the tree said to the boy, “No, you may not take my trunk. For how else will I be able to stand up straight?”
When the boy returns one last time wanting only to sit and rest, the tree who has nothing left to give, tries to straighten herself in her stumpiness, joyous that the boy has returned once again. “An old stump is good for sitting and resting,” she says. What a haunting line. Why do we find this scene the pinnacle of maternal devotion?
My kids need me less now. I miss them keenly even as I am proud they are making their way in the world. With one on each coast, I’ve learned how to give from afar. If only the tree had kept a few branches for herself. She would have been able to wave and cheer the boy on as he left on adventure and to welcome him back in a leafy embrace upon his return. If she’d kept her trunk, the boy, old and tired, could have leaned back against her and rested in her shade once again. And they both would have been happy.