Musings + Essays

Planting Trees Under Whose Shade You Do Not Expect to Sit.

By: Jen Shoop

I finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham last week, a fictionalization — or, rather imagination — of the way Hillary Clinton’s professional life might have played out (one of my picks for summer reading). Though I will write a more robust review soon, I thoroughly enjoyed it in the same way I cottoned to the author’s similarly-structured previous book, An American Wife, which fictionalized Laura Bush’s life. Neither book is partisan (at least, not overtly) and instead juicy and occasionally salacious inventions that riff on the known life details and observed traits of these tremendously public figures. It confounds me that Sittenfeld could publish these books without finding herself up to her ears in libel lawsuits, but I will write more about the ethics of these fictional accounts later, in my full review. For now, I would just say that I found both incredibly compelling, easy-to-read, and occasionally thrilling books that grapple with gender dynamics in politics, relationships, and the public eye.

Today, though, I want to dial in on a quote from Rodham that has very little to do with the plot itself. I used the highlight function in my Kindle for it, though I very rarely do so — itself a strange aberration, as I have been heavy-handed with marginalia in hard copy books since I was a sophomore in high school, when my stern English teacher forced the habit upon me. Annotations in her classroom were pro forma to the extent that I recall her scanning our margins for proof of readership. The habit stuck, in part because I am a rule follower, and in part because I found that the practice did, in fact, improve my reading skills, especially my ability to recall text specifics. My father will occasionally send me pictures of pages of books I’ve left in their home from my high school or college years, their scant, now-yellowing white space cluttered with my tiny hand-writing and dotted with question marks or arrows. One demerit for Kindle versus hard-copy: there is something much clunkier and less satisfying about double tapping on the Kindle screen to leave a note in size 10 font or drag my finger across a line of words. And so I find myself disinclined to do it.

I was so bowled over by this quote from Sittenfeld’s book, however, I went through the semi-buggy process of highlighting it:

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

The quote is actually attributed to a man named Nelson Henderson about which my preliminary Internet sleuthing has yielded little. No matter; let me pay my respects for this quote directly to Mr. Henderson here: Thank you. I needed to hear this. The adage has left me prodigious with thought and starry-eyed with optimism, mainly in how I have been thinking about raising my children, involving myself in causes that matter to me, and crafting the potential legacy of what I am building here at Magpie and in my writing more generally.

It also draws me face to face with the sacrifices of family members from generations past, and specifically those of my great-grandparents, some of whom emigrated from Frosolone, Italy and others from Finland around a hundred years ago in search of better lives for their progeny. I cannot begin to imagine the state of their nerves or, put differently, the depths of their bravery and selflessness. It is frankly unfathomable. I lost my bearings in a cushy move within Manhattan, and I blanche to think how I’d fare pulling off an international move with no receiving party at the other end, a limited grasp on the local language, and infinitely more unknowns than knowns. What’s more: I find myself occasionally hanging on by thread not being able to see my parents during this pandemic, and then I think of my great-grandmother Scacciavellani (surname Americanized/changed to “Square” at Ellis Island — the blasphemy!) saying goodbye to her own for, possibly, forever, charged with the will to find a better future for herself and her family.

My God, was she brave.

My God, am I lucky that she planted the trees under whose shade I now sit.

And there are narrower, tidier applications, too: a great-uncle who literally owned a tree nursery in Painesville, OH, the small manufacturing town in which my father grew up. My father worked at the nursery in the summers of his youth, an experience we have to thank for the provenance of his work ethic, offhanded wisdoms, and green thumb. In no small part because of the nursery, my father has planted many trees and shrubs in the years since, including peony bushes and climbing roses for my mother in the home I grew up in. Later, he and my mother gifted Mr. Magpie and I two bushes to flank the front gate of the home we bought in Chicago, Illinois. I love that we planted them there and hope current and future tenants retain them: a little bit of us in the town that taught us to grow up. But mainly, they stand as a contribution at the generous hands of my parents to the neighborhood landscape.

One problem with my perennial exertions to refocus myself on the present is that I neglect to think about the lives in the generations beyond my own. Henderson’s quote asks, urgently: What are the things I am doing now that will persist? There are easy, small things, like baking my grandmother’s “horn” cookies at Christmas, or celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve like she and the other Italians in my family did and do, or repeating to my children the same strange ditties my mother sang to me and her mother sang to her. (“Had a pony / his name was Jack / kept him in the barn til he fell through the….CRACK!” — and you drop the child through your knees on the “Crack.” Who else knows this?) This is the fabric of family, in which generations of Nurmis and Abells and Shoops and Squares (all family names) have found comfort — that is, brief moments of reprieve in the cool, familiar contours of what we know.

But hopefully, as Henderson intended, I will plant much larger things, too. I think of my parents and their open-mindedness, their endless generosity, the way they live their lives with hearts wide open. Their care with their finances has afforded me far more blessings and opportunities than I have earned or have ever deserved. I am equally the beneficiary of their continuous, unswerving focus on instilling the values of courtesy, care with words and thought, curiosity, work ethic, and academic excellence in their five children, both in how they led their lives and what they told us to do about living ours. I don’t always live up to their high standards, but I am grateful for the guidelines. And then there is their commitment to solving the specific but unwieldy problem of veteran homelessness in Washington, D.C., a cause to which my father in particular has dedicated the majority of his retirement, not to mention his vast intellect, his reluctant will to speak in public settings (something he hates), his money, and the galvanizing force of his occasionally unnerving stare. (You do not want to be on the receiving end of that stare, but God bless it for moving this cause forward.)

Yet here, still, I sit, languorously, in the umbrage of the many trees planted by people who laid no claim to the fruits of their labor.

It is time to get up and start planting my own.


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25 thoughts on “Planting Trees Under Whose Shade You Do Not Expect to Sit.

  1. When I saw this phrase (about planting trees) I already loved her!

    (I found this post when I was researching the phrase’s author)

    My english is not the best but i’m trying to comunicate here. I’m from Brazil. I was searching one sentence to put in my dissertation just to introduce de text and i think this phrase it’s incredible, also in science (for all the things, right?).

    Because science it’s something like that too… We plant some researches and future studies can use your advance to create another invention or descovering something new about your study.

    It’s a phrase where brings peace to us!!!

    Sorry for my english, but i just liked the discussion and the comments in here!
    Hugs for you, people!

    1. Hi Giovanni! Welcome! I’m so glad this lovely quote resonated with you. You are right – it applies to lots of different disciplines/areas of life, including science.


  2. Rodham is on my TBR shelf–looking forward to it!

    Your musings on shade trees also make me think of a comment I read recently about those of us who are either new to social justice work or who have been doing this work and are judging those who are just now showing up: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today. With my birthday approaching, I’m thinking about this notion of starting now, rather than thinking it’s too late. And doing so with no expectation of immediate gratification (or sitting in the shade) feels important, too.

    1. I love that quote about “the second best time is today,” Brooke – have been thinking of it all weekend. Motivation — thank you.


  3. In her incredible workbook “Me and White Supremacy” Layla Saad talks about being a good ancestor. What we do today impacts those who come after us. Sometimes that means not doing what is best for ourselves or our children but what is best for humanity.

    1. I love that concept and language, too — “good ancestor.” Thank you for adding this here!

  4. Jen, I appreciate your reflective posts like this!

    Lately I have also been thinking about the privilege I have in my life — of the unearned advantages from which I have benefited. There’s the education for which my parents paid through undergrad and partially for graduate school; the fact that my parents took my siblings and me on numerous international trips as we were growing up, to open our eyes to different ways of living; and the fact that I never had to worry about basic needs being met while under their care — all of which are not true for many people, especially now with the job insecurity and food insecurity many families are experiencing. Like you, it also makes me think about how we’re raising our daughter, and what impact I want to have on others; and when I am able to re-enter the workforce, how I can shape my future work around this idea. I don’t know yet what that will look like, but I will keep that statement in my pocket: “to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

    1. I’m so glad this resonated. I completely relate to your self-reflection here. I need to do more. xx

  5. Love this. Makes me tear up thinking of my grandparents. They instilled a strong sense of family and, like a previous commenter’s family, they were strong believers in Jesuit education (which emphasizes service and the development of the whole individual). I see their legacy in all my dad’s siblings and my cousins. Definitely an important lesson for how we raise our own children.

    1. Completely agree on the Jesuit education piece; hadn’t thought of this until you and other commenters wrote along these lines. xx

  6. Wow — this post blew me away with inspiration. I feel similarly towards my parents, grandparents, and other ancestors — but this quote really crystallizes legacy in a beautiful, poetic way. I was also (partially) educated by Jesuits and feel that the quote ties in beautifully with Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s philosophy of being men [and women!] for others. This philosophy has been a guiding beacon in my own life.

    I’m going to be waiting patiently for your full review of Rodham — it’s on my list! I really enjoyed American Wife, so I’m looking forward to eventually reading this as well. I’ve liked nearly all of Sittenfeld’s books, and have a particular fondness for her short story collection (You Think It, I’ll Say It).


    1. MK! I went to a Jesuit university too — and those lessons on being of service to others have stayed with me. On a related note, I remember distinctly how, even back then in the late 90’s when I was there as an undergrad, they had already re-named the concept as a gender-neutral “person for others”. They were really ahead of their time!

    2. I love that language, Mia! My university definitely said “men and women for others”, at least in the mid-aughts, but I like “person for others” even more, as it removes the binary nature of the former phrase. More inclusive 🙂


    3. You are so right to tie this in with Jesuit philosophy — my brother attended an all-boys Jesuit academy and I feel as though he and all of his friends were shaped by it. More to come on Rodham but I’d encourage you to read it — very enjoyable.


    4. Mia and MK,

      Just wanted to say that I also went to a Jesuit school (go Eagles!) and while I was there (semi-recently) we also sort of added in the idea of being men and women and people for and with others – both living for other people and in communion with them.

      The power of a Jesuit education still sticks with me and I think that Pedro Arrupe quote is such a powerful guiding life force.

      1. Hi Molly – So glad you brought this up. I recently read a meditation by Father Rohr (referenced him in previous posts) about being men/women “with” others versus “for” others, the latter of which — he suggested — sort of puts people on separate planes/levels. I don’t know that I fully agree (I think it’s still wonderful to live in service of others) but I thought the idea of being a person “with” others was beautiful, too.


  7. There’s a very similar quote that caught my ear during a recent viewing of Hamilton: “What is a legacy? / It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

    1. Kathryn, that is a beautiful statement — saving that in my notes to self. And, I must watch Hamilton now!

      1. Glad you brought this up – Mr. Magpie watched Hamilton on Disney+ for the first time last weekend and were blown away. Such a spectacle, so creative, so thought-provoking in its casting!

  8. That is such a beautiful way to think about a legacy! A good cue to ponder my own and my parents’ a bit more. And no, I don’t think I’ll be jumping on the Teva sandals trend either. Although no judgement! I myself wear Chaco flips 90% of the summer for their arch support (ugh plantar fasciitis) and they are firmly on the Tevas end of the “elegant sandals” spectrum. My true self would much rather wear something like your chic Oran sandals!

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