On the Threshold: Of Lent, Marriage, and Louie’s Backyard

Winslow Homer, “Watching the Breakers” (1891)
Winslow Homer, “Watching the Breakers” (1891) (photo: Public Domain)

“It's a dangerous business going out of your door.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

The radio was on as I did dishes Sunday morning, and NPR’s Rachel Martin was introducing a story. “At the Marine Room in La Jolla, California,” she said, “asking for an oceanside table will get you – well, the Pacific Ocean.” Martin was describing a beachfront restaurant that serves up both a five-star menu and an unforgettable oceanic floor show. “During winter's high tides,” Martin continued, “waves crash into the restaurant, pounding the glass.”

I dried my hands and turned up the volume a bit. It was an animated interview with the Marine Room’s chef, Bernard Guillas, who wove together an auditory image of fine dining with a rapturous and often violent climactic setting. “The first time I was there I was like, ‘Oh my God, there's no way this building is going to make it,’” Guillas said. But there’s special energy-dispersing architecture and triple-pane reinforced windows, so, as he later admitted, “you just get used to it.”

The story was of special interest to me because of my experience at a different oceanside restaurant a continent away – and the immediacy of its enveloping seascape: Louie’s Backyard in Key West, Florida. Nancy and I were newlyweds at the time, and we had jetted down to West Palm Beach from our Steubenville nuptials to stay in my grandmother’s condo there. She’d given us the run of the place as a wedding gift, as well as the use of her big white Cadillac Seville. Our pale complexions gave us away, but Nancy and I still had a blast driving to the beach and tooling around the resorts as if we belonged down there among the rich and leisured.

At some point, we came across the Keys in our Fodor’s Guide – so much to do! Pirates, treasures and sunken vessels; Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart, and the African Queen; and of course Key West’s Ernest Hemingway associations, including Sloppy Joe’s and six-toed cats – why not? We booked a room at the Marriott, piled some luggage into the Caddy, and hit U.S. Route 1.

We encamped upon arrival, and allowed the Fodor’s to be our guide to local sights and landmarks. That evening, again per Fodor, we decided upon Louie’s for dinner – a fortuitous choice. It had a reputation as a premier eatery, and yet food became an afterthought as the hostess led us back to our table – I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our table was a mere dozen feet or so from the Atlantic which lapped up against the pylons supporting our dining terrace. The tuna steaks, the bottle of wine, not to mention conversation with my beloved, all were exquisitely enhanced by our sublime perch above the sea. In fact, I’ve often ordered tuna steaks at restaurants since in hopes of recapturing that sense of calm repose, but to no avail. The location and the shared meal were one, and it was an occasion impossible to recreate.

Nor was its significance in our marriage repeatable, for at that moment Nancy and I were ourselves on the verge of an oceanic unknown. Parallel to what spread out from beneath our feet at Louie’s was the threshold of our life together – the vast open-endedness of our Grand Adventure. The exchange of vows were behind us; the expression of those vows lay ahead; anything could happen, and all was possibility and promise. It’s a fond memory we recall on occasion, even toying with a return to Louie’s Backyard someday – to sit again above the yawning ocean, to feel the warm, salt-tinged breeze scuttle across our faces, to gaze out over the waters to the horizon, to look ahead, to dream.

Yes, someday – but not in the foreseeable future. We have two collegians navigating their own cavernous futures, and another graduating high-schooler right behind them. Then two more in high school, and two yet in grade school, plus a mortgage, and brake jobs, and, “What, is the dryer on the fritz again?!” – no jaunts to Florida for us any time soon. You see, 22 years have gone by, and we have a much clearer vision of the chaos that we naïvely signed up for at the altar, but which remained tantalizingly veiled at Key West. The metaphorical threshold that beckoned in Louie’s Backyard has vanished; much of the unknown is known; so many possibilities back then have been curtailed by today’s realities. When – and if – we return, we won’t have any illusions about conjuring up a bygone vibe.

Nonetheless, thresholds abound – with or without spectacular panorama.

Like Lent, which is upon us again! We’re at a collective liturgical brink the threshold of the Church’s annual spiritual Spring cleaning, yet another fresh start offering myriad prospects of conversion: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and especially mercy this go around. Sure, we’ve been here before, but we mustn’t be fooled: it’s a wide-open vista. Maybe we find ourselves sitting at the calm little tables of our lives, enjoying our routines and conversations, our entrees and wine. Yet, there’s that sea out there – in the dark, with who-knows-what awaiting. Where will it take us? And will it abide our dawdling – or come crashing through the reinforced windows we’ve created?

Too often we think of Mardi Gras as the threshold of Lent, but really the threshold is Ash Wednesday – or better yet, Lent’s first Thursday. The marks on our foreheads are gone, the exhortations and ostentation of Ash Wednesday are already so yesterday – including whatever grandiose Lenten promises we publicized to family and friends – and now what gapes before us is the vast openness of the next forty days. That’s the real threshold – the real beginning! Will we step up and repeatedly bend our wills to His will? After the Lenten marathon has begun – after the gun has fired and the racers have surged past the cheering throngs – will we falter, abandon our pace, lose our footing? Will we walk – or keep running? And if we walk some, will we run again?

As far as Florida is concerned, I’m sure Nancy and I will get back down there in time. When we do, I’ll request our honeymoon table, and we’ll order those tuna steaks again along with a bottle of dry white wine. We’ll look back over our years of married and familial love in gratitude, and then toast the future – maybe we’ll have sons- and daughters-in-law by then, and grandbabies, promise and possibilities all over again!

In any case, we’ll be quiet, I imagine, gazing at each other indirectly by pondering the vast open reaches of sea stretched out ahead. And while the threshold of our youth will be a distant memory, we’ll be anticipating new thresholds all the same – like the one at the end of C.S. Lewis’s final Narnia tale, The Last Battle. Having lasted through so many exciting adventures and perilous journeys, the children and their companions behold the threshold of eternity – and the real adventures that were just itching to commence. “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story,” Lewis concludes, “which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”