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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Giving Tree Gets Us Every Time

“Once there was a tree...and she loved a little boy.” --Shel Silverstein

The bedtime ritual in our home looks like this: our girls get ready for bed and pick out a book in time for their dad to get home from work and read it to them. It's a sweet way for the kids to bookend their days with Dad: breakfast and bedtime. My husband usually enjoys it just as much as the girls do, but recently he walked in to the kitchen afterward with a rare complaint.

“I like that Giving Tree book,” he said, “but I hate reading it out loud.”

“What--choke ya up or something?” I teased.

Sniff, sniff. “Maybe,” he confessed. How could I help laughing?

It's undeniable—I think only the soulless can make it through Shel Silverstein's story without some kind of longing or sorrow or ache stirring in their chest. On the surface, it seems to be a celebration of selfless love, so why does The Giving Tree get us every time?

Perhaps it reminds us of the way we long to give everything we have to those we love, but how often we wonder if we aren't giving too much—if we aren't in fact giving away the parts of us that create an ongoing bounty. The tree who loves the little boy gives him her fruit, then her branches, and then finally trunk. How will I keep giving fruit if I give my branches and trunk, we wonder. When do we know we've given too much--or is there such a thing, if our children make use of what they're given?

We might feel pained by the boy's lack of appreciation, the way he takes the tree for granted, and we know that we, too, cannot stop ourselves from giving to our children if their happiness is a possibility—appreciation be damned.

As the story progresses, it marks the passage of time, and reminds us that the happy day-in-day-out season of our children's company is short and that (too) soon they will leave us to start their own families, to launch their own adventures, and we will be left alone with our longings for their company and their happiness.

After the boy has taken all but the tree's stump and grown old, The Giving Tree ends with his return and his request for a place to sit, along with the tree's final joy of being able to oblige. Thus The Giving Tree stirs in us a deep hope that at the end of all the acquiring of goods and launching of adventures, after the years have led us apart or stripped us to our stumps, we will be together with our children at the end of our story—that long after the equation of giving and receiving, the simple pleasure of each other's company will bring us peace at last. And that is why The Giving Tree gets us every time.

Above is a reading of Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree.

Jen Lee is a Park Slope mother and writer, and a regular contributor for Hip Slope Mama. For more of Jen Lee: Writer, Mother, Newbie Yorker, visit jenlee.net