Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, if it were about my Uncle Donnie.
If The Giving Tree Had Been Inspired by My Uncle Donnie
Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
Feb. 12 2014 7:26 AM

The Uncle Donnie Tree

If my relationship with my uncle had been the inspiration for Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.


Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Once there was an Uncle Donnie Tree. And he loved, or at least managed to tolerate, a little boy—so long as the boy didn’t talk too much, or accidentally scrape off any of his bark, or really do much of anything at all. 

And every day the boy would climb up the Uncle Donnie Tree’s trunk and swing from his branches. And the Uncle Donnie Tree would mutter angrily to himself in his thick New Jersey accent and do his best to shake the boy off.

And they would play hide-and-seek, only sometimes the Uncle Donnie Tree would say, “Ready or not, here I come,” and then not actually search for the boy, so that the boy would end up spending a good hour hunched behind a nearby rock waiting in vain for the Uncle Donnie Tree to find him.


Still, the boy loved the Uncle Donnie Tree ... very much. And the Uncle Donnie Tree, while not exactly happy, could put on a good face—especially on those days when he managed to persuade the boy to pour a couple of cold brewskies down around his roots.

But time went by, and the boy grew older. And the Uncle Donnie Tree, to his tremendous relief, was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the Uncle Donnie Tree and said, “I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?”

And the Uncle Donnie Tree was sure the boy was joking.

“Seriously?” said the Uncle Donnie Tree.

“Seriously,” said the boy.

The Uncle Donnie Tree still thought the boy had to be joking. But the boy just stood there with an imploring look that left a dull pain at the base of the Uncle Donnie Tree’s trunk.

“What part of ‘I’m a tree’ don’t you understand?” the Uncle Donnie Tree finally asked.

And the boy started to cry, and the Uncle Donnie Tree, to his own surprise, felt a little bad.

“Look, I am a tree. I ain’t got any money for ya,” the Uncle Donnie Tree said. “But if ya wanna break off an old branch and carve it into some sort of crap, and then try and sell it on eBay or something, then be my guest.”

And so the boy did.

The boy stayed away for a long time. And, oh, the Uncle Donnie Tree was happy that the boy had stopped hounding him for cash.

And then one day the boy came back and said, “I want a wife, and I want children, and so I need a house. Can you give me a house?”

And the Uncle Donnie Tree wondered if there was a way to get the boy to take one step to the right so that he might drop an apple on his thick skull.

“How about you start with the wife, and we go from there,” the Uncle Donnie Tree said. And the boy started to weep again, but this time the Uncle Donnie Tree did not feel bad, and was like, “Pal, I don’t have a freakin’ house for you. I am a tree. A TREE! I don’t know what you want from me.”  

Now the boy really wouldn’t stop wailing, and the Uncle Donnie Tree soon realized that the boy wasn’t going to go away unless he came up with something. So he told the boy to park his Corolla under him and then let one of his branches fall and total it so that he might collect the insurance money. “It’s not going to buy ya a house,” the Uncle Donnie Tree said, “but maybe you can get a month’s rent out of it.”

So the boy cut down a branch and totaled his Corolla.

The boy stayed away for a long time, and when he came back yet again, the Uncle Donnie Tree said, “F my life,” in a sort of hushed voiced that made it seem as though he were trying to say it to himself when really it was fully intended for the boy’s ears. 

And the boy said, “I want a boat that will take me away from here. Can you give me a boat?”

And the Uncle Donnie Tree said, “Did you say, ‘Take me away’?”

And the boy said, “Yes.”

And the Uncle Donnie Tree said, “Grab your ax, and send me a postcard.”  

And the boy started to cut down the Uncle Donnie Tree’s trunk.

And the Uncle Donnie Tree was like, “Jesus Christ! What are you doing? I meant you could take some branches. You’re cutting down my whole … For the love of God … Heeeelp! Somebody please … ”

And the boy made a boat and sailed away.

And the Uncle Donnie Tree pondered whether it was possible to pull his own roots out of the ground.

And after a long time the boy came back, and the Uncle Donnie Tree tried to imagine what else the boy could possibly do. Then it hit him: And the Uncle Donnie Tree waited for the boy to open his fly.

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy. “Just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

And the Uncle Donnie Tree was like, “You sure there’s nothing else I can do for ya? Sure you don’t wanna see if you can get a box of toothpicks outta that last piece of bark over there? Maybe get a half a bucket of wood chips outta me to mulch the garden?”

And the boy shook his head and sat down on his stump. And for a brief, terrifying moment, the Uncle Donnie Tree thought that he had been optimistic in anticipating only a No. 1.

But the boy merely sat and rested.

And the Uncle Donnie Tree was, if not happy, hopeful that he might still get one last brewskie out of the boy.

Sam Apple teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent.