By Jen Jackson Quintano
Once upon a time, we had a client named Elaine. Once upon an earlier time, she was something of a painterly powerhouse. She was capital-S “Someone.” She had a large sphere of influence. She created beautiful things and guided a multitude of others to create beautiful things.
That once-upon-a-time happened long before I met her.
The once-upon-a-time in which I met her found her somewhat stranded way out Bottle Bay. With a failing mind and a body full of betrayals. Surrounded by her art but unable to create more. Not in the company of family, but with people paid to occasionally make sure her meager needs were met.
She once told me, “When you hit 80, do yourself a favor and die. Nothing good happens in life past 80.”
She said this while sucking on a Marlboro for dear life. She said this while pushing a glass of scotch my way, despite the fact that I was there to operate chainsaws and heavy equipment. She said this while looking so fiery and full of life, it was hard to imagine her calling it quits more than a decade earlier. At the time, she was 93.
We worked for Elaine multiple times. There were several instances wherein she forgot that she’d hired us, and since the work had been completed by someone else, we would just chat. Because she needed that. And our schedule was suddenly open.
Sometimes, her eyes were rheumy with forgetting. Sometimes, she was sharp, observant, still the artist at work.
While clearing branches from her deck one day, she stopped me.
“Your profile, my dear. It’s striking. Has anyone ever drawn you? I would have loved to draw you.”
One day, she invited me up to her bedroom to look at a vine gone feral that was blocking her window view. She wanted it reined in. Once in her room, she lost track of why we were up there. She forgot who I was. Yet, in her forgetting was an awareness of how lonely such forgetting was. Her expression looked pained as she again studied my face for the lines she’d once have set to canvas.
“Elaine,” I ventured, unsure of what I was saying until I said it. “Do you want a hug?”
She dissolved into tears. She melted into my arms. She held on for dear life. For a very long time. And I wondered, When was the last time someone embraced Elaine?
Who knows? It could have been years. It could have been yesterday. But in that moment, it seemed there had been no previous hugs, and this one was the only one of consequence.
I often think back to that hug and wish I’d had the bigness of heart to return regularly— weekly, monthly, anything — to repeat it. It just meant so goddamn much to her.
But I didn’t return. And Elaine died this fall at the age of 96. There will be no further opportunities to comfort her and help her feel seen.
Reader columnist Emily Erickson wrote of Elaine years ago. She quoted the artist as saying, “When you look at things, really taking the time to see them in their entirety, you learn to look at them with love.”
I wish I had looked at Elaine more often. Really looked at her. In a way that made her feel seen — perhaps even loved — if only for a moment.
Instead, I spent the ensuing years pushing full steam ahead with running a business. I focused on money-making and bill-paying and daughter-raising and house-holding. Instead, I kept my nose to the grindstone, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Seeing things in their entirety — with love — is ancillary to that.
Working and raising a family is all-consuming. It’s easy to lose track of the wider world. It’s easy to lose perspective. It’s easy to prioritize the transactional over the reciprocal.
I wish my relationship with Elaine had been more reciprocal, less transactional.
I wish there had been more cowbell.
Remember that classic SNL skit with Will Farrell, wherein Blue Oyster Cult is recording “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” and Farrell is on cowbell as Gene Frenkel? The band is rather fed up with the cowbell, but the music producer (Christopher Walken) demands, “I gotta have more cowbell!” Confidence thus bolstered, Gene goes for it with the cowbell. He is all belly-bouncing exuberance. The band, however, in their nose-to-the-grindstone-ness is like, Oh my god, enough with the cowbell.
They tell Gene it is distracting. They say he is being selfish.
But the producer prevails upon Gene.
“I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.”
The band acquiesces. They lean into it. And, thus, a hit is born. With a whole lotta cowbell.
This, dear readers, is a metaphor for life.
We should all be living as Gene Frenkel, ebulliently beating the shit out of our cowbells. Not because the song — or our lives — need it, but because it brings us joy. And it brings joy to those around us.
It may seem selfish or distracting to the workhorses around us, but… so what?
Spontaneously — and then repeatedly — embracing a lonely woman. That’s more cowbell.
Extravagantly tipping your server. That’s more cowbell.
Taking an interest in the life of your mechanic/hairdresser/grocery checker/pharmacist. That’s more cowbell.
Sending a handwritten letter. Complimenting a stranger. Making something beautiful and giving it away. Cowbell. Cowbell. Cowbell.
Blue Oyster Cult probably would have had a hit without the cowbell. But guess why we still remember “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” nearly five decades later.
Here’s the deal: Sandpoint is growing. You are less likely to recognize a face on Cedar Street now than you were even five years ago. Sandpoint, now, is also more expensive. Your nosing-to-the-grindstone is suddenly buying you less beer, fewer tacos and no housing. Today’s Sandpoint is also (sadly) the Idaho town with the highest aggravated assault rate. None of this speaks of joy and reciprocity, community and communion. This is all of us with our heads down, forgoing perspective in an effort to find one’s own singular way, finding that way to be exceedingly hard.
Sounds like Sandpoint has a fever.
Know what cures that?
My final memory of Elaine is her waving at us from her front porch, 13 years past her self-imposed expiration date, but bolstered by a single hug.
If one embrace can help a woman forget her despair, what might your heart be capable of?
Bang that cowbell, Sandpoint.
It may not pay the bills, but it’s worth it.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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