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.


The Road to Grandma’s House

Run for 45 seconds, walk for 30. Repeat. For six miles. Go.

It was Saturday morning along the misty Allegheny river, and we were running, then walking, and running again. Blessedly, I was not in charge of the stopwatch. I was checking out a run-walk club, and our leader timed all the transitions.

“Walk for 30!” she hollered. I slowed my pace and made eye contact with the woman beside me. “I’m glad that she tells us what to do,” I said. She grinned, “Is this the first time you’ve done this?” I nodded. “Are you new to the area?”she asked. “No, I’ve been in Pittsburgh for fifteen years. And I grew up visiting my grandparents, just outside of town in Verona.” Her smile widened, “Oh, that’s where I live! Where did…”

“Run for 45!” We paused until the next break.

“Walk for 30!” We walked, and my new friend re-started the conversation. “I didn’t expect to be living in Verona,” she confessed, “But a friend of the family, an older lady who had been taking care of her brother and sister wanted to sell her house, and it’s just a few doors down from my parents. It all happened suddenly, but seemed like the right thing to do.”

At this point I almost stopped walking, nearly tripping the run-walker behind me.

“Wait, this older lady with the brother and sister, what was her name?”

And she said my grandma’s name. My grandma, who had taken care of my great-aunt and great-uncle in her house in Verona. Then the daughter of her long-time neighbors bought her house because it seemed like the right thing to do. I had heard this story before.

“That’s my grandmother’s house!” I exclaimed, and now she almost stopped (we were really annoying the people behind us). “You’re the granddaughter who lives in Pittsburgh?” she asked, astonished, as if I had just run-walked off the pages of a novel she was reading. “Yeah, that’s me,” I replied.

“Run for 45!” the command came again, and the timing was perfect.

We both needed 45 seconds to process these revelations.

* * * * *

It was an hour in the car from my hometown to grandma’s driveway, and as a child the ride seemed endless. So I counted landmarks: the Harmerville Exit off 28. The Eat n’ Park by the movie theater. The purple bridge. The Dairy Queen. The street with all the flags, and then the turn up the hill, past the Italian restaurant. A turn off the main road and then the winding suburbs of yellow and red brick houses, nearly identical except for a striped awning here, a rhododendron bush there.

“We’re almost there,” I would inform my brothers. “Doh!” one of them would inevitably respond. “Stop hitting your brother!” came the call from the front seat. But none of this mattered. We had finally arrived.

The driveway crunched under the car tires as we pulled around back. We always, always entered grandma’s house through the back door. The front door was for guests. The back door was for family.

As we piled out of the car, there were longing looks at the neighbor’s pool, and then we plunged into the cool, musty dimness of the garage and basement. Sasha and Peeko greeted us with a swish of cat tails against our legs. We paused by the piano that lived in the basement and banged on the keys, one of my parents scolding us to stop-that-horrible-racket.

We stopped. The stairs drew us forward, then up, as we announced our arrival with voices and loud clomping. The door at the top of the basement steps was closed, but soon it would swing open.

And Grandma and Grandma’s house were right behind that door.

* * * * *

After much friendly reminiscing, my run-walker friend and I exchanged e-mails. “Come and visit,” she said, “you’re always welcome.” I promised to be in touch and went to my car, calling my mom while I was still in the parking lot. “You’ll never guess who I met!” And my mom was, of course, thrilled. “Are you going to go and visit?” she asked, and I started to respond that of course I was, and did she want to join me, but then… I paused for a long time.

“Jen?” she asked. “I’m not sure,” I stammered, surprising both of us, “I’ll have to think about it.”

Suddenly, it was a lot to process. Suddenly, I felt protective of my childhood memories. Grandma’s house was grandma’s house after all, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted a dose of grown-up reality, of inevitable change, to cloud the pictures in my mind.

So much has already changed.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I told my mom on the phone, and several months later, I’m still thinking about it. Not because I’m afraid of what I’ll find there–I’m certain that the house has been well-maintained and cherished in its new life with a new family.

It’s just that I know what will be missing.

Like the old fridge with the curved corners, with chilled dishes of red jello on the bottom shelf. Or the egg-crate mattresses folded in the closet, waiting for me and my cousins and brothers to line them up for a sleepover. The familiar afghans on the orange-yellow sofa. Grandma’s neat piles of papers. Sasha and Peeko. The golf-tee triangular peg game thingee!

How can grandma’s house exist without a golf-tee triangular peg game thingee?

But mostly I know that grandma won’t be there, behind the door. She lives in Michigan now, in a lovely senior high-rise with multiple pianos, none (I assume) in the basement. I can visit her there, and we can jump golf tees together. But her house?

I’m still not sure I want to visit. My run-walker friend would probably welcome me–graciously–through the front door.


These pictures are thanks to my cousin, Mike (next to me on the couch) and I include them with much love to my all my cousins, including Mike, Melissa (shortest blonde in line-up), and Chrissy (blonde in white dress). The blonde on the far left is a neighbor named Jennifer, we think, which is likely since she was female in the 1980s. I am, as always, the tall brunette. Much love also to my un-pictured brothers whom I appreciate so much more now that we never, ever, ride in the back of a car together.