When you grow up in Manhattan in the 80s, you read a lot of Shel Silverstein. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but it was when I was a kid. My favorite book of his, though, I don’t recall reading as a child. I don’t recall reading it at all, except to write this post. I only remembered the story.
It’s about a female apple tree and a little boy. And how the little boy would play with the tree’s leaves, swing from it’s branches, eat from her fruits, and shade in her protection. This giving and making the boy happy, Shel explained, made the tree happy.
But time goes on, as it’s wont to do, and the boy gets older, leaving (bad pun) his desires to imagine, swing, eat apples, and sit in the shade behind. Instead, he comes around every few years with different wants. One year in his teens, he decides he needs money. The tree gives him apples to sell. The next time he sees the tree, years later, he decides he needs a house. The tree gives him her branches so that he can. Decades later, an older man comes to the tree to beg for a boat so that he could move far away. She gives him her trunk.
Each time, no matter how long the boy/man’s been away, the tree is so happy to see him. And gives him everything he asks for.
Until she’s a stump.
The parallels are there, of course, to parenthood. Of gleefully giving. Giving to make parent and child happy. Giving until it hurts. Sacrificial giving.
Bill Gates was asked once if he considered himself the most philanthropic man alive and I found his answer enlightening. He said that there were many, many others who were far more charitable. Because, he explained, he could have a cheeseburger when he wanted to have a cheeseburger, no matter how much he gave, but that others, far more philanthropic than he, would give up the money for said cheeseburger, would give up their time, to help others and that that was who he considered the most generous.
My folks gave up cheeseburgers for me.
I read the story of the giving tree and I understand it’s meaning a great deal more now, being on the other end. Seeing my wife’s happiness giving everything to a little boy who wants to take in the world and all of it’s plentiful offerings. Particularly from the strong, deep rooted, oak tree he calls Umma.
I’ve been that boy. Perhaps I still am that man, only coming around every year or so, but the story ends happily. At least, I think it does, you might want to read it. But as I tend to do, it leaves me with some questions.
Are you a giver or a taker?
A child or tree?
And isn’t it time you called your mom?