My first introduction to my future in-laws came via a giant UPS package full of t-shirts and fake poop.
They were living on a boat in Maryland at the time and weren’t able to make it home to Santa Barbara for Christmas. But believe me, they were there in spirit and found a way to make their presence felt.
“Ooh, a gift for me,” I exclaimed, as I opened the package to reveal a t-shirt with a ginormous elephant head on the front, and an even larger elephant bottom on the back. Hmmm. Were they trying to tell me I needed to develop a thicker skin to be a part of their family?
They’d never met me before, so maybe they hadn’t been given an accurate scouting report about my um, fashion sensibilities. Or maybe it was supposed to symbolize something. Aren’t elephants considered lucky in some cultures? Could be. But still, an elephant t-shirt? I know that shopping opportunities are limited when you live on the high seas, but what about a nice abalone shell?
As I catalogued the possible meanings of the gift, I noticed something odd: everyone in my boyfriend’s family got the same t-shirt. Huh.
“This is so dad,” mused Big Brother Bruce.
“Here are the instructions,” said Big Sister Julie, as we herded around to listen. I have since learned that elephants live in a very structured social order. “Number one: Put on t-shirts.” I giggled nervously as I watched every single other person in the room put on their ridiculous shirt without a moment’s hesitation.
Was there an elephant in the room that was forcing them to do this? Their parents were miles away. Why were they all following instructions?
“C’mon, Leslie, you’re one of us now,” urged Little Sister Holly. The social circle of the female elephant does not end with the small family unit. She may as well have been telling me to drink the Kool-Aid.
I have since learned that the female elephant’s life also involves interaction with other families, clans, and subpopulations, such as potential sister-in-laws. I gritted my teeth and put the t-shirt on over the cute new outfit I had spent days agonizing over and would eventually spend half a paycheck paying for.
“Number two,” read Julie. “Take the unopened package labeled ‘open at La Cumbre Plaza‘ to mall.” I watched in astonishment as people began gathering purses, sweaters and car keys.
My protest, “but I haven’t finished my wine,” was met by a flash of a flask from Brother-in-law Eric. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it covered,” he reassured me.
Minutes later we were at the mall, as instructed, opening the mystery package. It contained a disposable camera and what I first thought were a bunch of coconuts. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Expensive to ship, but in the range of normal.
No such luck. They turned out to be brown plastic elephant droppings, inscribed with each of our names.
I’ve heard about stock being used as a dowry, or even livestock, but my future in-laws had sent me plastic poop. That couldn’t be a good sign.
“Find someone to take your picture,” read Julie. This wasn’t an easy task, since people aren’t exactly swarming the mall on Christmas Day. All the stores are closed. We managed to flag down a disheveled looking woman who was pounding and screaming at the window of Pottery Barn in an attempt to buy one last perfect sandalwood candle.
I felt like screaming myself. Why couldn’t they have given me a nice candle for Christmas? Or even a book of matches. My reverie was interrupted by Julie’s reading of the order for us to gather in a straight line.
Now I know that elephants communicate over long distances by producing and receiving low-frequency sound, which can travel through the ground farther than sound travels through the air, but the idea that my future father-in-law was choreographing this scene all the way from Maryland still stuns me.
Apparently the long distance sound waves can be felt by the sensitive skin of an elephant’s feet and trunk, which pick up the resonant vibrations. No wonder I felt like pounding my head and stomping my feet. Even the crazy Pottery Barn lady thought we were nuts when Julie read the final instruction to “line up in order of age. Then, one-two-three drop your poops.”
The camera clicked as, one by one, we dropped poop. I’ve never felt so ridiculous in my life. I’ve also never laughed so hard.
In a very, very, very odd way, I knew I had just passed through some sort of strange family initiation.
Ah, the foibles of families. I knew them well. Female elephants spend their entire lives in tightly knit family groups, which my own tribe had prepared me well for.
But male elephants are different. As they get older, they begin to spend more time at the edge of the herd, gradually going off on their own for hours or days at a time. Eventually, days become weeks, and finally the mature male elephant sets out from his natal group for good, as my father-in-law did when he passed away this week.
But I know he’s still with us in many, many ways. We’re elephants, and elephants never forget.
Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on September 28, 2007.