I worked at my building’s annual White Elephant Sale on Sunday and ran into someone who had never heard of a white elephant sale. “I had no idea what to expect!” she said. “It’s kind of a garage sale, really, right?”
I am sorry I did not ask what her other guesses had been. Was she expecting, say, a sale on elephants carved from soap? (That was an Ivory joke, friends. I…oh, forget it.) A snow-elephant judging exhibition?
Anyway, for those of you who may not have run into the term, a white elephant is something that is taking up space in your life without much return. It goes back, I am told, to early India, where a ranking official might honor someone he particularly hated by giving him a white elephant. This was an amazing honor since a white elephant was rare, symbolic of both monarchy and of divinity, and could absolutely never be sold, traded, or exchanged in for a smaller size. It had to receive the best of care, and it had to be fed every day, and, if things went the way the official hoped, it would eventually bankrupt the honoree.
I’ve had a few of these donated to me recently. The Newberry Book Fair is practically a White Elephant stable.
“Here. Daddy always told me the 11th edition of the Britannica was the best ever, so I’ve kept it all these years.”
“Yes, it is good. And, um, where have you been keeping it?”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. By the way, what is that? I can never remember what’s the difference between mold and mildew.”
“You could look it up in the encyclopedia.”
“This book is SIGNED, so I’ve wrapped it to keep it safe all these years.”
“Yes, that is vintage plastic wrap, isn’t it? Who signed it?”
“Well, the author, of course. See his name?”
“Ye-es. But who was it?”
“My father’s accountant. This is his only book. You’ll put it with your signed books, won’t you?”
“With some of them, yes: with some of them.”
“When this came out, I knew it would be collectible, so I bought three. I thought you could have two of them.”
“Kept them in their original shrinkwrap, did you? What’s it all about?”
“I forget now. They told me. Of course, I didn’t read it: that would have meant opening the plastic.”
“I’ll say! The price guide knocks a copy down from 100 to 93 just for not having the plastic!”
“My great-great-grandfather brought these all from the old country, and we’ve preserved them ever since. We’re proud of our roots.”
“Very nice. What language is that?”
“I don’t know: none of us can read it. He was Swedish or Dutch or Danish or one of those.”
Peanut poundcake, I am not trying to convince you NOT to herd your white elephants my way. In fact, my intentions are quite the opposite. Send those poor old white elephants right on over.
I’ll see if I can’t find somebody who will finally read them.