Back in January 2018, on my old blog, I wrote a post about how my husband, Bill, hates Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree. People are usually surprised whenever I mention that Bill doesn’t like that book. The Giving Tree is a poignant story about a marvelous, loving, giving tree who provides so much to a selfish, thoughtless little boy who grows up never appreciating the gifts the tree bestows on him, even when he’s an old man. A lot of people love it and think it’s a beautiful story. For Bill, it represents a bad time in his life that he’d sooner forget.
I was familiar with the story before I met Bill. As a child, I liked Shel Silverstein’s books, and as a music lover, I enjoyed the lyrics he wrote for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. I never had any personal reasons to dislike The Giving Tree until Bill told me about how his ex wife, in a classic moment of projection, accused Bill of being like the boy in The Giving Tree, always taking from her and leaving nothing behind. Ex had an unfortunate propensity of using children’s literature to make her points. Consequently, Bill has significant issues with Silverstein’s classic, as well as several books by Dr. Seuss. It’s a real pity, although entirely understandable.
Having known Bill for almost twenty years, sixteen of which I’ve spent as his second wife, I know that if anything, Bill was the “tree” in their relationship. Hell, he’s probably the “tree” in our relationship, too. He truly is a very selfless, thoughtful, considerate, empathetic person. Sometimes, his kindness works to his disadvantage, although I do my best to appreciate all he does for me.
When Bill and I met, he was at the beginning stages of recovering from the financial ravages of his first marriage. He lived in a super cheap efficiency apartment on about $600 a month, $200 of which went to pay his rent. Ex had claimed most of his paycheck and had done her best to ruin his credit. Unfortunately, he was so beaten down by his years with her that he put up little resistance to her unreasonable demands. Consequently, at age 35, Bill was living like a recent college graduate. So was I, since I was in graduate school. In retrospect, it was a good time for us to come together, since we were both at similar crossroads. One of my uncles noticed how good Bill was and told me I should do my best to look after him. I have taken that advice, which, along with my late grandmother’s advice to marry him, is probably among the best I’ve ever received.
Bill ate a lot of beans and rice in those days, and slept on a futon at a time when his career should have been taking off. His nightly chats with me were probably 90% of his entertainment. He experienced bankruptcy and foreclosure and had joined a church that demanded 10% percent of his gross income for tithing. He was BROKE– financially, spiritually, and emotionally– although he still had his health. One could say that much like the tree in The Giving Tree, Bill was left a dried up stump… with maybe a single struggling branch that was still marginally viable.
We got married in 2002. The first few years of our marriage were fun, but kind of stressful due to our lean finances. I was looking for work and he was paying child support for three kids, one of whom wasn’t even his legal responsibility (his bio dad was pushed out of the picture and quit paying). Still, we made it through those years. I remember one sunny Saturday morning in early 2005, we were sitting at the card table that served as our dining room set. I told Bill that this was a temporary condition and that I could see us living a good life. It would take awhile, but we’d get there. Then we ate our pancakes on our wedding china and probably had sex, since it was free.
Later that year, I scored a freelance writing gig that paid pretty well. I bought us a dining room table, chairs, and a couch and a loveseat. The table is in storage and has been replaced by a German Eckbank Gruppe. The couch and the loveseat are here with us in Germany, and they have been well loved, especially by our dogs. I think when it’s time to leave, we’ll be leaving them here.
We’ve come a really long way since 2005. Just as I predicted, things got a lot better for us. In 2006, we bought a new RAV 4, financing it through Toyota Finance Corporation. It was an expensive loan, although I had used Toyota to finance my first car. I later refinanced my first car through Pentagon Federal Credit Union. One of the best gifts I received when I graduated college in 1994 was a savings account at PenFed. One of my sisters started it for me. Ever since then, I’ve kept it going, and used some of their other products. I saved significant money when I refinanced my car loan with them. I also used PenFed when it was time to finance my grad school education, although those loans got sold a couple of times.
In 2007, Bill went to Iraq, which resulted in extra pay. I took the opportunity to retire all of the debt on the high interest credit cards he was carrying. I started paying down my credit cards and my student loans. When he came back six months later, his cards were paid off and I was ahead on my debts. We moved to Germany the first time, where we were able to get further ahead due to tax laws and money for utilities we didn’t need, but were allowed to keep. We used it to pay off more debt. Eventually, USAA, which had taken a loss when Bill declared bankruptcy, decided to trust him again. He’s now rebuilt his credit so that it’s almost as good as mine is, and I have never had any significant financial disasters.
One night in 2008, I noticed that PenFed was offering cheap rates for refinancing loans. I pitched the idea to Bill that we should try to refinance the loan on our 2006 RAV 4. Bill was reluctant, because he didn’t think they’d approve his application. He’d been through the shame of financial disaster and his credit rating was still improving. He didn’t want to hear the word “no”. I reminded him that my credit rating was excellent and I had already paid off a car loan with PenFed. He could be a co-signer for a loan in my name. After a few minutes of cajoling, Bill and I Skyped PenFed from Germany. Two minutes into our call, they agreed to refinance our high interest car loan. It would save us about $150 a month. I will never forget the look of gratitude on Bill’s face that PenFed trusted him. He was on his way back… the dried up stump’s one surviving branch had sprouted a couple of leaves and they were turning green!
In 2009, as we were leaving Germany, we decided to order a Mini Cooper for me to drive. By that time, two of the children he’d been supporting had become adults, so we had an extra $1700 a month. Since we’d been paying PenFed for a year, they trusted us with another car loan, again at a very favorable rate. The loan was in my name, with Bill as a co-signer. Eventually, I got my Mini, and in 2011, the last kid came of age. We used the extra money to shave down the loans and both cars were paid for ahead of time. We had a few more twigs greening on our tree!
In 2014, Bill retired from the Army. We worried about what he would do after he left the military. He was turning 50, and though he looks young for his age, he’s definitely not a whippersnapper anymore. He had a couple of interviews at companies that clearly wanted someone younger and cheaper on the payroll. Fortunately, the timing was just right for us to come back to Germany, and Bill happened to run into a contact who was able to help him get his resume in front of the right people. It turned out he was just the man they were looking for, and on my 42nd birthday, Bill got a job offer.
It was expensive to move here, mainly owing to skimpy relocation package his first company offered. Still, we were successful in our bid to move. Once again, we worked hard to pay off debt and eventually got to the point at which we had very little. I was socking away money in investments and savings accounts. For the first time ever, we had money saved in multiple locations. The green limb had branched out into a few new green limbs. The “tree” was getting taller, stronger, and healthier. The dried up stump was being overcome by renewed growth. It was quickly rotting into the Earth as our new tree grew more robust.
In 2017, Bill started working for a new company that paid him better. We had several months of extra money that allowed me to throw huge payments at my student loans. They were retired nine years early. Then, just as I had visions of saving up lots of money for our own house someday, we had to move. That was a setback, since the new house costs a lot more rent and moves are always expensive. However, in the long run, the move has proven beneficial to Bill’s career, and I am much happier in our new house. Now, it’s time to buy a new vehicle and send our trusty RAV 4 on to its next owner. Our old RAV 4 will probably end up in Africa. Supposedly, for cars as old as that one, Africa is the most common ending point.
This morning, as we were enjoying breakfast, Bill was talking about the new car he ordered yesterday. It’s a beautiful Volvo and we will be going to Sweden to pick it up. Yes, we are financing it. Maybe it would be better not to, although Bill prefers to buy new cars rather than used ones. Used cars are cheaper, but you always know where new cars have been. Since Bill isn’t the handiest guy in the world, that’s a selling point. We’ll probably keep the new car for a long time. My Mini is now ten years old and we aren’t ready to part with it. This time, Bill got a substantial car loan offer without my help. The offer was a lot more than what we’ll need, and Bill was very excited that they trusted him with that much of a loan. It’s so nice that he was finally able to make a full financial recovery. He’ll probably use about half of the loan amount USAA offered.
Somehow, over fresh strawberries and hot coffee, we got on the subject of The Giving Tree. Bill was reminded of how he’d been left so depleted in 1999, when he and his ex wife split up. He thought he was finished. I said, “All you needed was some fertilizer in the form of a little shit like me!” I think one of the reasons Bill and I get along so well is because he laughs at my ribald jokes. That, and he does listen to and respect me, most of the time, anyway.
Although things can always change, we’ve made a real commitment to work together for common, positive goals. In 2002, it seemed like it would take forever to become financially solvent. Yes, for a few years, life was tougher, although conditions gradually improved. We made decisions that would help the tree regrow into its former glory. I’m not just talking about finances, either. I’m also referring to health and happiness. In a way, maybe this story is less like The Giving Tree and more like the Christmas Tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Bill is fortunate because he chose a career that offers a lot of opportunities. He took advantage of educational benefits and, despite having once been sucked dry, didn’t become completely bitter and shriveled. He made better choices, learned about trusting the right people, and started standing up for himself against thieves and bullies. Everything is different now… everything is better. Even the “bitter fruit” from that old tree has ripened into the form of one previously alienated daughter who has reconnected with her dad and is sharing her life. Hopefully, someday, the other daughter will come around. Maybe, just maybe, Bill will also stop hating The Giving Tree, too. Especially since we’ve changed the ending!
I’m looking forward to our trip to Sweden. I don’t know exactly when it will occur. I suspect it will be in July or August. We did manage to get to Sweden in 2009, just as we were about to leave Germany the first time. Unfortunately, it was via a short Baltic cruise, and we barely got to see the port and the airport in Stockholm before we had to fly back to Germany so Bill could attend a conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I remember those weeks as being a lot of fun as I visited a bunch of countries in one last blast before we moved back to the States. We probably won’t get to see Stockholm on this trip, but we will drive through Denmark and northern Germany to bring home our new vehicle.
I have a tendency to be negative, cranky, and even downright bitchy at times. I do still suffer from anxiety and depression. But there’s another side of me that’s positive and “evergreen”. Things often work out, particularly if you keep the right mindset and work for change. Small changes, long range vision, and good decisions can lead to growth in all aspects of life.
At the risk of sounding corny, I just want to say that even when things seem totally shitty, small, positive changes, good decisions and mutual cooperation, and a little love, luck, and fertilizer can breathe new life into what once seemed like a lost cause. Bill’s “tree” is back and thriving, and we’re both reaping the benefits, without taking anything for granted. So maybe Shel Silverstein taught us a valuable lesson after all…