If You Pass the Elephant, You’ve Gone Too Far

My grandparents are gone, the property’s sold, but the elephant abides.

In the 70s, my grandparents owned Taylors Furniture and Gifts, a small shop in a two-story building my grandfather built. Huge windows faced the highway. In good weather, Nana lined up rockers and swings out front.

I recently found a business card touting their Gifts, Wicker & Rattan Furniture, Rockers, Ladderback Chairs, Barrels, West Virginia Glass, and unspecified “Mexican Items.”

Mostly I remember the store through Nana’s left-behind collection of photographs and newspaper clippings.

And the artifacts (think wicker monkeys and Fostoria glass) that still circulate in the family.

And the elephant.

nicole mom pink elephantPapa Taylor bought a pink elephant statue in Michigan, an animal nearly ten feet high to the top of his regal fiberglass head. Papa brought it back to West Virginia and parked it in the small square of lawn in front of the store. He faced that elephant toward U.S. Route 60, a busy two-lane then that’s swelled to four plus a turning lane now. The animal’s uplifted trunk curls behind him, as if to spray his dusty back, his riders, or the store with imaginary water.

Papa gambled that such an unexpected creature would make people stop for a photo, and then stick around to buy a fetching coffee table or a trash can shaped like a frog.The pink elephant is the spirit animal of that stretch of highway lined with grocery stores, car lots, pawn shops, strip malls, and fast food restaurants. On a nicer road, the elephant would be an eyesore. But there, he blends right in, an eccentric neighbor who causes a double take before he wins you over. He’s a non-native species that’s an emblem of our small town.

Papa and Nana printed the pink elephant on their business checks and collected pink elephant knickknacks in the house. For years after my grandfather died, my mom would find a token pink elephant for Nana at Christmas: a pendant, a statue, a tea towel. In the last days of her life, as she lay in bed in hospice, Nana slept with a plush pink elephant tucked under one arm.

My grandparents lived near the store, in the last house that Papa ever built, a split-level perched above the highway. We lived on a road down the hill from them, a road that Nana called a “holler,” as in “how are things up the holler?”

Our holler was close, claustrophobic, leafy in the summer, a handy place to store your shadows. In a holler, you’re tucked into the hills and most of the mailboxes bear the same last name.  You learn not to look at the Christmas lights unless you’re in the passenger seat. You learn the curves and gamble sometimes on what’s around the bend. Could be fog, could be wind, could be nothing.

The pink elephant was a handy landmark so friends and pizza delivery people could find us. We weren’t far from Rt. 60, but you had to know where turn. The holler didn’t draw attention to itself which was part of its charm.

Now I live in the Pacific Northwest, far from my native holler and its attending elephant.  With no tattoos, I feel a bit naked in this part of the world. I’ve thought about getting one of a stylized pink elephant, an elephant as it might look if it sauntered out of illuminated manuscript or a cathedral window. The ink would mark where I’m from.

“What does it mean?” People always ask that about tattoos. I could say that it represents that tall, hollow elephant on Rt. 60. It reminds me of grown-ups climbing ladders and hoisting up grandchildren to sit on the elephant for photos because it’s our birthright.

I could remind them that the pink elephant means starry visions when you’re in an altered state.

Pink elephants, the internet assures me, do exist. Behold the albino elephant, available in white or pink. And, affirms the internet, the pink elephant stands for what a charmed childhood and a badass tattoo must always be: “something extraordinary.”

more walk w virginia

Nicole’s work has appeared in Image, Mid-American Review, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Sonora Review, The Ocean State Review, Western Humanities Review, Tampa Review, Quarterly West, North Dakota Quarterly, and in Permanent Vacation (Bona Fide Books, 2011) and Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical (Cascade Press, 2009) and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and the web editor for Rock & Sling and How to Pack for Church Camp, an online anthology of creative nonfiction about summer camp.  She is on the Twitters at @heynicolesheets.


61 Thoughts.

  1. It is so heartwarming to hear your story of the Pink Elephant! It holds wonderful memories for me. I am from Culloden and when I was a young girl, my two sisters and I would look forward to our annual trip at Mother’s Day to your Grandparents store to purchase something unique for our Mother. Mother has gone on to be with our Lord in heaven, as well as my younger sister. When I go past The Pink Elephant these days, as an older adult, it reminds me of the wonderful mother that God gave to me and of happy times!

  2. I am so happy I came across this story. I live in New Hampshire now, but I can remember when I was having an interview for Cabell County 9-1-1 about 15 years ago, that one of the questions they asked is if I knew where the pink elephant was, because so many people would use it as a point of reference when calling 9-1-1, and I will never forget that, thinking at that time what a strange question to ask!

  3. We were at Farley’s this evening, right across Rt. 60! I vaguely remember going in the store years ago–seems like forever. I’ve always wanted to have a picture taken on the elephant but never worked up the nerve.

    Long may Pinkie stay!

  4. Loved the story. Always had our two children to look for the pink elephant on the drive to Barbourville from Chapmanville to visit my husbands grand parents and uncle.

  5. AWESOME read. As a little girl, seeing the pink elephant meant we were halfway to the mall (15-20 minute drive that seemed like a long journey then). My parents always made sure to remind me when it was coming up so I wouldn’t miss it. I never knew the story behind it. I’m glad I do now!

  6. My mom grew up in Huntington and we now live about 1 1/2 hrs away ….as a kid we always laughed at the pink elephant but as an adult I always wondered about the story behind it….thanks now I know

  7. Wow I can’t believe its still there! Makes me wish I had stopped in that store after reading this. We have since moved but when I go home I always look for the pink elephant! Thanks for sharing the story hope they let it stay there forever!!

  8. I loved reading this story of the pink elephant. My husband works across the street! When anyone asks where his office is I always ask them if they know where the pink elephant is. If they are from this area they always know:) I think you should get that tattoo!

  9. Now 70 years old and a Tennesseean for 42 years, I can still remember that pink elephant so well! What a wonderful landmark…one you would never forget nor accidentally miss. So many times I’ve traveled Route 60 to visit family members, go to the old Gateway Motel to eat a delicious dinner, or to visit “the store with the pink elephant”. Thank you for this remembrance of your family and their pink elephant and for reminding me of how special my hometown of Huntington, WV is to me.

  10. Thanks for sharing! This is part of the history of life in my part of the country. Anytime we went to Barboursville by way of Rt. 60 we always looked for the Pink Elephant. Now I know how such a wonderful creature found it’s way to make B-ville it’s forever home. This is one loved elephant!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *