“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”
Any man and woman who put up with one another for 50 years deserve a party. My sister, Holly, and I agreed that was especially the case with our mom and dad, who had eloped during World War II after a one-month courtship, skipping all the non-essential trappings of a wedding—like guests, a reception and a honeymoon. They'd had their honeymoon to Hawaii after they had grandkids, but they'd never had a wedding reception. Now, we reasoned, they could have the party they couldn't afford when they were barely 21 and not quite 18.
So we rented the hall, booked the band, ordered the hors d'oeuvres and sent the invitations. Holly, a professional caterer, would drive up a few days early and use my kitchen to bake and decorate a special cake to take the place of the wedding cake they'd never had. It was going to be beautiful. (Bad judgment call #1.)
I had only one oven, strictly amateur-sized, so the cake had to be baked in shifts. Holly started early in the morning, reasoning that although May in Illinois is usually cool, because I didn't have central air, there was no point taking chances. She'd get a jump on the sun.
It was the hottest May 13 on record.
As layers and layers of cake accumulated on the dining room table, heat accumulated in the kitchen, spilled out into the dining room and started to intrude on the living room. All the windows were open and fans running.
My sister is a trooper. She worked on until she had a multi-layered tower with roses filling the top, spilling over the edge and down one side. Then the icing, turned into sweet lava by the sun pouring in the glass patio doors and the heat pouring out of the oven, began to flow.
"Let's put it in the basement," I suggested. "It'll be a lot cooler down there."
We carried it carefully down the stairs into the cool, dark quiet and placed it on a fold-up table in the middle of the room. The icing firmed up, my sister repaired the sags, and we shut the door and went back upstairs, relieved that it had worked out so well and we could now finish up the rest of the preparations for the big party the next day.
But before we could continue our work, we decided that my sister's dog, who'd spent the morning shut in the guest bedroom, needed to get some exercise, not to mention relief. Thumper was a docile, friendly little dog who seemed sublimely ignorant of the fact that some of his ancestors had been bred to subdue stubborn bulls. He coexisted happily in my sister's house with three cats, a rabbit and a bird.
My dog, Vargi, was a golden ball of fluff with a curled, feathery tail and a little pug nose who was the sweetest, most enthusiastic, most affectionate dog you'd ever want to meet.
When other dogs approached, she morphed into a hairy pit bull. That's why Thumper had been in the bedroom, which, judging from his stretching and yawning when we let him out, hadn't been especially taxing for him.
We kept them apart and made Vargi be, if not nice, at least distantly aggressive. Then, when my husband came home from whatever errand he had been on, we went to do our chores, instructing him to "watch the dogs." (Bad judgment call #2.)
When I returned about 15 minutes later, I saw Thumper in the back yard and no sign of Vargi.
"Where's Vargi?" I asked.
"She wouldn't leave Thumper alone, so I threw her into the basement."
"The basement!" I shrieked. "That's where the cake is!"
I ran down the stairs, nearly crashing through the door at the bottom, my husband only a step behind me.
It was too late. Vargi sat there looking up at us innocently through the bangs that nearly obscured her big brown eyes, daintily licking her pink nose and protruding lower teeth. Nearly too small to reach the table top, she had nevertheless taken a large doggy bite out of one side of the bottom layer of the cake.
I broke the news to my sister when she returned a few minutes later. "The bad news is" I said, explaining how the dog and the cake had come to be in the basement together. "But the good news is, she's a small dog, so it's not a very big bite."
She gave me "the look," rolling her dark eyes at me the way she had when we were kids and I'd said something she considered typically big-sisterish. Then she sighed and went down to inspect the damage.
"You're right," she finally admitted. "I can fix it so no one will ever know. We can put this side in the front because we'll be cutting from the back, and we can just work around it. (Bad judgment call #3.) But Mom and Dad will have a cow."
"They never need to know," I said softly, with a wink, “and neither does anyone else.” (Bad judgment call #4.)
And they never did—until they read this essay several years later.
And neither did the person who, in spite of all our efforts, cut himself a big piece of cake from the center of the dog bite.