My brother and I had a fascination with elephants when we were little. It’s possible this started when we went on an elephant ride. You had to climb up to a platform and be placed on the elephant. It was not like a horse; the elephant almost didn’t know I was there, like I was a fly on his back, but the idea that the elephant was alive, and moving, and not a bus or train but a real live being, seemed magical to me.
I might have been four years old, because I can’t place when or where it happened. I don’t know if it was at a circus or an elaborate petting zoo, near home or away. I just remember the moments of elephant, and the plan that started to form: we wanted an elephant to live at our house.
We never wanted chickens, that I know of. I thought about a goat, but Mom said no right away, because of the smell, and the inevitable destruction. She knew from goats and didn’t want to live near one again.
I really wanted an elephant, or another big animal, someone who could take up more space than my father and fight off any monsters who dared to invade my room.
I didn’t want a lion, really, or any kind of cat. They struck me as a little too changeable. I never really thought of having a cow. They just didn’t seem that interactive, and, they were steak. I didn’t want a pet who could be confused with food. A giraffe would have worked great. She could have hung her head out of my bedroom window to snack on trees and keep watch over the neighborhood, and then she could rest her head on the porch roof whenever she got tired. I think my brother would have been okay with a giraffe, but for some reason Mom said no to that too. Something about the ceilings.
We had an eighty pound Doberman Pinscher named Solomon when I was little, but even though he towered over me I never thought of him as a good elephant substitute. A friend had a slobbering blue mastiff named Bruno that was more what I was looking for; someone slow, and friendly, and soft, and smiling at me. I wanted him to go to school with me and sit at the next desk during spelling tests. I wanted him to go to summer camp with me and do the doggy paddle while I tried to stay afloat.
My therapist, and, from what I gather, many other therapists as well, uses the elephant in the living room metaphor, i.e., there’s an elephant in the middle of the room and everyone is acting as if it isn’t there. The elephant could be incest or alcoholism or mental illness or domestic abuse, but whatever it is, the family denial is so potent that it makes something the size and weight of an elephant invisible.
I hadn’t heard this metaphor when I was little, there was just something about an elephant, so majestic, with rough skin, not trying to be colorful or beautiful, that felt right to me. They are matriarchal, and have long memories, neither of which I knew at the time, but maybe I sensed it. There was something about elephants that calmed me. I could maybe ride my elephant to school, and slide down her trunk, and set her up under a tree while I was in class, and bring her milk and cookies during snack time.
There was a book I read all the time about a boy who had a dinosaur as a friend, and I thought an elephant would be more practical.
The biggest argument against an elephant was, how would you get it up to the second floor so it could sleep in your room? So that’s when we started planning the elevator. We started scouting locations where the elevator could go without disrupting the floor plan too much. When my father complained about the cost of electricity, we thought about a dumbwaiter contraption, but we’d need a second elephant to help us lift the weight. Two elephants. One for each of us!
Of course, sadly, our parents prevailed, and we never built an elevator or brought home a baby elephant to raise in the backyard. I know we would have been willing to share the chores, and take turns having her sleep in our bedrooms at night, but it’s possible we wouldn’t have known how to handle the poop. That’s probably what made the decision. Everything else about an elephant living in a house on Long Island would have worked out fine; but not the poop.