Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"And the Tree Was Happy": The Giving Tree

      Earlier on this blog, I argued that the ending of The House at Pooh Corner is at the top of the list of most tear-jerking children's books, and I stand by that, but I now want to offer Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (1964) as one of its companions at the top. Like the ending of Pooh Corner, the entire narrative of The Giving Tree is about, among other things, the the loss of childhood, specifically the simple needs of a child, the complication of which Silverstein paints as an unbearably sad tragedy.

      When the boy is young, he and the tree have a thriving symbiotic relationship. All he needs is to gather and play with the tree's fallen leaves, to climb the tree's trunk and swing from her branches, and to eat her apples and nap in her shade. Several of the illustrations depict the tree as a personified entity wrapping her branches around her beloved boy. As the "boy" grows into a young man and eventually into an old man, his connection to the tree fades, and his needs grow more and more demanding on the ever-generous tree's resources. The only time he comes to visit the tree is when he needs something from her. As a young man, he sells her apples for spending money; as a middle-aged man, he removes her branches to make himself a house, and as an older man, he chops down her trunk to make himself a boat to sail far away, eventually leaving nothing behind but a stump. Even then, when the boy returns as a very old man, the tree is able to offer him a place to sit and rest.

      But...the book is not called The Losing Tree or The Taken Tree. Though the tree is often alone and nostalgic for the young boy whom she loves and who loves her, we are repeatedly told after every visit from the boy, "And the tree was happy." Each loss of herself that the tree endures affects the reader with increasing dismay, but the tree is delighted to see her boy each time he comes, and she is happy and proud to give him what she can. Furthermore, where most would naturally see a dead stump, the tree recognizes that she, once again, can offer the boy exactly what he needs.

      As Mother's Day approaches, and perhaps because I myself am the mother of a small child, I think it most appropriate to read this story as a testament to the uncomplaining selflessness of motherhood. We mothers are the most important figures in our children's lives when they are young, and as they mature and need us less, or rather differently, it is easy to pine for those more innocent, golden times. The Giving Tree ultimately validates the ever-evolving dynamic between mother and child, and the fact that the child is called "boy" throughout, even when he is a very old man, reminds us that a mother will always see her child as her baby, even when that baby starts to go gray. 

     So, if you still have a mother, call her or go see her if you can. If you are a mother, thank you for giving of yourself to provide for your children.


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