We first met Elephant three years ago next week, on a trip from Northern Virginia to North Carolina to visit Rob’s grandmother, Amie. We didn’t know then that it would be our last visit with her; she died that May. We didn’t know then that we would start falling in love with North Carolina that weekend and move there ourselves almost exactly a year later. We didn’t know then that we were adding a new member to the family.
Elephant was one of several toys Amie had picked out for Harper, who was just six months old then, and there was nothing particularly noteworthy about him. Actually, Harper was getting elephant presents before she was born, thanks to the collection of elephants I’ve been amassing for the last twenty-some years. We’ve got elephant blankets, elephant socks, elephant toys – even a rocking-horse elephant. There are a lot of elephants in our house, but for whatever reason – his silky underside, maybe, or the fact that his trunk fits perfectly underneath her chin – this particular elephant became Harper’s very best friend.
For a social kid who spends a lot of time with adults when she’s not in school, Elephant has become a beloved playmate and confidant. He is the baby when she wants to be the mama, he is the student when she wants to be the teacher, he is an acrobat who does flippos across the living room, he is the hider in many games of hide and seek. He is a comfort when she’s upset; he lets her cry when she is mad at Mom and Dad, and he is always tucked underneath her chin when she falls asleep at night.
I think I could have written a book in the countless hours I’ve spent looking for a missing Elephant, who usually turns up under the bed covers or squished in the couch cushions. Once, though, we found him tucked into an old oatmeal container, and another time, he was having a “time-out” in an upstairs closet. He doesn’t usually leave the house – she gives him kisses and hugs before school each morning – though he does travel with us to visit family and friends. We’ve only left him behind once, at Granny and Granddad’s, who kindly overnighted him back home.
He’s undergone a sort of transformation lately. Harper calls him “Baby” and refers to him as “she.” I can’t quite get the hang of the gender change; he’ll always be a “he” to me. He’s never had a name other than Elephant, though she’ll make one up if you ask. GoGo and Emily are the usual favorites.
On a recent lazy Saturday, Harper and I were getting ready to make a batch of cookies. I was getting the ingredients out, and she was standing in the middle of the kitchen, holding Elephant and rubbing his trunk across her lips, something she does often and subconsciously, a sort of intimacy between the two of them that I’m not privy to. “Put Elephant down and wash your hands,” I said, “so we can get to work.”
“Where?” she asked. Elephant is far too important to be tossed into the den if something more interesting comes up.
I scanned the room and noticed the giant basket of oranges we’d brought back from Florida. “Could he sit on the oranges and watch us?” She grinned, delighted by the silliness of my suggestion. She propped him up on top of the oranges, arranging him just right so he could see what we were doing. We were ready to cook, then, but she couldn’t stop going back to give him hugs. “One more hug,” she’d say, “My baby needs one more hug.” Then she’d kiss his trunk and stroke his head, and I could swear that he nuzzled her ear.
Harper occasionally wants to be reminded about where Elephant came from. “Who gave this to me?” she asks, and we tell her it was Daddy’s grandma. She has a hard time imagining that daddies have grandmas, but she knows that Amie was somebody special.
I think I’ll be a little sad when Elephant finally loses his personality as Harper develops deeper relationships with human friends. I hope she will remember how much she loved Elephant, and how much he loved her right back.