Waiting for the Light with John Kiewit
Remembering the Life and Work of Santa Barbara Photographer Who Died in 2000
I read somewhere that the depth of a marine layer is typically around 1,500 feet, but surely there was a mile of cool moist air sitting on top of the ocean in the August days of 1999. It was a marine layer that wouldn’t leave. Each white day blurred into the next, and John kept telling me he was waiting for the light.
He was a well-known photographer, recently widowed. Months had passed since the death of his wife, Linda, but he was inconsolable, and I became part of a little team of friends and neighbors who were looking in on him. I had a naïve notion that getting outside and being active would make him feel a little better, even if the days were gray, and so I made it my mission to pry him out each day. We drove along listening to music, a folk mix from the Sixties, and parked by the mailboxes at Alegria Canyon to do a brisk loop, up a steep climb, and back around. Sometimes we linked arms as we walked, learning each rise and curve by heart, and I listened and said stale, reassuring things … as if I had a handle on anything.
One day, a snowy egret lit on the pond, and we paused and watched in silence. John still took the time to notice things, and he told me that for a photographer, it was all about the light, and he hadn’t seen the right light in a good long while. I thought about what I’d learned from him in his happier days: Eat well. Laugh hard. Bring friends to your table. Trumpet your indignation but forgive everyone. Cherish books, for they have souls. See beauty in the whorls and warps of weathered wood and windswept places, in the sun-bleached tidings of long-forgotten billboards, and sighing houses emptied of their folk. Watch the sea. Remain amazed.
Now, in his grief, if John could still perceive beauty in the world, it brought him no comfort. All he knew with certainty was that fog obscured the landscape and that Linda would always be gone. One day, as we slogged up the steepest part of Alegria’s gravelly dirt road, he stopped abruptly and asked, “Why are we doing this?”
“It’s what we do,” I said lamely.
And maybe that was the right answer, because it is what we do: put one foot in front of the other and trudge up the miserable hill even if we can’t see what comes next.
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But my therapy wasn’t working. More and more, John was resigned to sitting inside his house, overlooking lemon groves and a view of the coast. He was paralyzed by depression and spoke in a monotone. I was there one afternoon, keeping him company in the living room, listening to his muttering and complaints, and trying to fill in his empty spaces with my words. There was a knock at the door.
A little girl with black hair and a long pink dress stood there, holding a bowl of homemade menudo in her hands. It was Jennifer, the daughter of Rufino, who worked in the lemon orchard and lived nearby with his family. “My mama says to eat this,” she told John.
John accepted the soup with a bewildered thank-you and turned toward the kitchen.
“My mama says to eat it now,” said Jennifer. “It’s still hot. It’s good for you. I’ll come back for the bowl later.”
John took a spoon from a drawer and set the bowl on the table. He sat down, peeled the plastic wrap from the top of the bowl, and proceeded to obediently eat. Steam rose from the bowl, and I could smell the rich soup, redolent of tripe and onions and chili paste. John said nothing and, spoonful by spoonful, finished the soup.
I saw a tiny spark of the old John in his eyes, a spark so fleeting I might have imagined it, and he took a nap after that, belly full. When he woke up, everything was the same. The orchard was dripping wet, webs of dew glistened in the whiskery air, and fragments of sky hung like rags in the black branches of trees. He waited for the light.
Life is an uneven path with distant views obscured, and it’s easy to wander off course, so we stand near and try to hear. We offer soup. We link arms and trudge uphill. It’s what we do. And it’s not nothing.
The John S. Kiewit photography collection is housed at UCSB’s Alexandria Digital Library. See alexandria.ucsb.edu/collections/f3pc33vc. Learn about the John S. Kiewit Memorial Foundation at kiewitfoundation.org.
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