I asked Madeline to write an essay about a book she didn’t like, and I gave her the liberty to choose any book; it didn’t have to be a book we’d read for school. She surveyed the bookshelves for a while reminiscing about different books she’d read. She’d pull a book out, turn it over, and flip though the pages to decide whether or not she disliked it enough to write her essay about it. Finally, she chose The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
She looked up from the bookshelf, “Why? Is it too short? Do you want me to pick another one?”
“No! I’m happy you picked that one.”
I can remember reading it to the children one evening after one of them had received it as a birthday gift. I was excited to have the book because I liked the simple whimsical illustration on the cover and it seemed everyone in my mom circle thought it was such a sweet book. I read the book to the kids, closed it, and put it back on the shelf. I didn’t like it. The book has stayed on the shelf for more than twenty years. I never read it to the kids again. The kids have read most of the books on our shelves, so I guess at some point, probably enticed by the whimsical illustrations, Madeline picked it up and read it.
The kid in that book is a parent’s nightmare. Why would we read that book to our kids? Do we want them to grow up thinking it’s okay, even expected, for them to take, take, take and never give anything back?
Or maybe it’s a good thing that they read the book. Maybe it’s a litmus test of sorts. How will they react to the book?
We never learn the boy’s name, but through the illustrations we learn that his initials are M.E. — Subtle. We all have M.E.s somewhere in our lives: in the branches of our family tree, at work, and in our various communities. These people are exhausting. If we let them, they’ll leave us stumps. I wish I had some nugget to share about how to deal with M.E.s, but I don’t. Over the last couple years I’ve tried to take a few steps away from some of the M.E.s in my life which has been both good and sad.
Madeline turned in her essay. It had some grammar and usage errors, and she might have misspelled “fertilized,” but she recognized that the kid in the story is pathologically self-absorbed and the relationship is unhealthy. Her litmus test revealed that she is wise and insightful beyond her years. I gave her an A+.
I think the kids are doing fine. Not because I figured out how to parent in that perfect way, but because these people I get to call my own are kind and loving people. I’ve never told them to thank me for dinner, but they do. I have told them a thousand times not to put their elbows on the table, and they still do. So it isn’t anything I’ve done. I’m grateful, though. I know what a gift it is to have the husband and kids I have. I hope they feel unconditionally loved. I hope they know that if I were to write a book about a kid and a tree the last illustration in the book would be of a well-watered and fertilized old tree surrounded by many kids, their families, friends, and other trees in a beautiful forest. Unconditionally loved.