THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This book did not change my life. This book transformed my life. The youngest of three, I would sit enrapt with my siblings as our father recited long passages of poetry to us each evening. I can’t remember if I was mesmerized by his remarkable ability to recite verse after verse after verse of poems he’d kept sealed in his heart his whole life or if I was caught up in the adventures of different poetry he shared, but having a father who was a writer and poet and pastor meant the mellow, oaky boom of his deep bass voice was calming and comforting and home.
My father loves language and wit, which is why the books of poetry by Shel Silverstein were such a critical part of our literary repertoire growing up. We three siblings would page through Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic giggling at the wild images enjoying how funny phrases would somersault in our heads plastering us to our beds imagining the wonders of the small worlds Shel created in perfect rhyme.
So when my father first settled me into bed to read me The Giving Tree for the first time I was confused by the lack of a rhyme in the first several pages. I interrupted the story to check out the cover—yes, there was the odd wonderful name “Shel Silverstein” scrawled on the cover as though he signed the book himself. Yes, there was the simple line drawing on the book cover—the comforting signature of his art. So convinced this was indeed a Shel Silverstein book, I let my father start from the beginning again with his deep, sweet voice touched with echoes of the southern drawl his grandparents had gifted him, “Once there was a tree…”
And I loved the beginning because I immediately identified with that little boy as most of my childhood was spent in the trees and woods on our property. Despite the lack of rhyme, I thought I knew why my dad had chosen this book…he was seeing how my tomboy shenanigans were aligned with this little boy. He knew how much I loved sitting in the deep sand pit next to our garden carving out tunnels, he knew how I protected the pussy willow from being stripped of her buds by the hands of the legions of boys traipsing around our neighborhood. I knew my father read me The Giving Tree because he saw me climb Jennifer’s Tree scaling it with grace and care and hugging Jennifer’s Tree before bed each night in the summer.
And then he read, “…the tree was often alone.” The “alone” was a balloon just slipping from my grip and there was a pause where my father let me watch it float away. And my tiny little eight-year-old heart splintered, deflating. I could never leave my tree unattended. But the story continued and became for me a warning tale because in the story, the years tumble forward and the tree remains a steadfast giver each time the boy returns as the unapologetic taker.
The Giving Tree can be read in about nine minutes or less and when my father first read it to me I was exhausted at the close having surged through all the emotions my childhood heart could manage: love, grief, hurt, anger, mania, hurt, love again, longing.
I cried by myself after my father left the room and switched off the light. I distinctly remember feeling as though I needed to choose which I would be: the boy or the tree. Would I give with utter abandon until I was used up? Would I always look forward to someone even if they used me? Would I be the boy—always clear about what I needed? Always wanting bigger and better?
I was afraid to page through it again and instead let it sit on my bedside table for a week. Only after that time could I manage to let the story break loose inside me once more until I was withered and teary all over again. The heartbreak of the story and the gruff author’s image on the back cover frightened me for years until eventually I moved out of my parents house at 16 to board at my art’s high school. As I considered the stack of books to bring with me to high school I held The Giving Tree in my hands but didn’t crack it open because just holding it transferred the simple power of the story so I tossed it away from me and it stayed shelved at my childhood home until I myself became the home to a child.
I was pregnant and so was the dog when I returned to my parent’s house as a 22 year-old. I’d gotten pregnant in a scary way and was entering a dark night of the soul trying to decide if I should keep the baby or place it for adoption. I considered the dog at my feet in the kitchen her belly full of seven puppies she’d nurse for several weeks and never see again and I tried to see this pregnancy as simple as that—just birth and give your puppy to someone else to raise.
There were lots of late nights that winter where my family and I sat around the kitchen table discussing the plight of my life: single, poor, pregnant, minority, jobless. Finding hope in the folds of a Minnesota winter with taglines like those trailing my every move was very bleak to say the least. And being newly pregnant I discovered insomnia so I dove headfirst into my parents’ library reading everything by Wendell Berry and working my way through Barbara Kingsolver and eventually Walt Whitman.
And then one night I found and read The Giving Tree and I cried and cried and cried for the boy and for my baby. I cried for myself and for the tree. Her ideas about life were subverted as the boy grew. Each of her welcomes were ignored.
I wanted my life and body back. I wanted to be happy like the tree and the little boy at the beginning, to keep life as it was where everyone in my family had a place and nothing was changing—each day there would be apple-picking and branch-swinging and hide-and-go-seek and then we’d do all over again the next day and be happy.
But my body was changing, that baby was growing and demanding I make choices and face truths and be honest. The boy was echoing what this baby was already saying into the core of my body—that they would love me and leave me, “And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.” I just remember reading that and weeping softly in the room where I’d slept during my childhood. I considered my unsettled life and the reality of birthing a being that would cut down my trunk and sail away from me. I asked myself if I could allow such a thing, if I could permit the possibility of growing the heartless little boy and not the beautiful loving tree…I asked myself if I could manage the burden of choosing a person who might possibly be the taker of all of me.
I didn’t decide that night whether to keep the baby or not. But eight months later when I was sitting on my hospital bed with the beautiful little brown girl I had just met by pushing her into the light of the world…when I was sobbing and whispering to her my apologies and asking that little person for an ocean of forgiveness—I was reminded of The Giving Tree: the truth that it is quite possible to have a beautiful life and to choose to give
and give away…
…and still be happy.
And I am happy. I am happy to live into a life where someday I can invite my sweet daughter to, “Come…sit down. Sit down and rest.”
This post originally appeared on D.L. Mayfield’s blog