Lum: A bushel and a peck |

Lum: A bushel and a peck

Su Lum

I was 10 or 11 — old enough to know better, but I had plenty of pockets of ignorance. We were all sitting at the dinner table having meat, a baked potato and fresh or home-canned vegetables from the garden, which I didn’t appreciate until I was 30, and that was in retrospect, “we” being my little brother, my older sister, my dotty grandmother and my parents, who have all — all, hard to believe — gone on ahead.

Anyway, I made an innocent but erroneous remark about liquid measurements, perhaps referring to 3 pints in a quart or 4 teaspoons in a tablespoon, and my mother jumped up from the table, practically overturning her chair.

This was extremely peculiar behavior from either of my normally undemonstrative parents. I clearly remember the day that my father, who worked on developing color television at the Bell Labs in the late ’40s, was forced to bring a set home for a month for testing. My father couldn’t stand TV, and when he noticed that at dinner all of our eyes were glued to the set, he leapt up and really did overturn his chair as he rushed to yank out the cord. We were thrilled, especially since he yelled “Goddamn it!” into the bargain.

So I made this faux pas about measurements, and my mother decided to clear that matter up once and for all right then and there. She was president of the local school board and probably didn’t want any kid of hers not knowing how many cups were in a pint.

My parents weren’t usually much at teaching us things. My father showed me how to use tooth powder when I was 5 or 6 — shake a little into the palm, and swirl it with a wet toothbrush. He also taught me how to solve cryptograms and how to make probability graphs by throwing dice, but I never thought of those as lessons.

This measurement thing was definitely a lesson. My mother scrounged up all the measuring cups, quart milk bottles, measuring spoons, pint canning jars and buckets she could find, and we repaired to the tiny bathroom under the stairs.

The little room with its slanting ceiling barely held a toilet and a gallon-sized (4 quarts, 16 cups, 8 pints) round sink with a rubber stopper. At my mother’s bidding, which was half in humor and half dead-serious, I spent the next hour or so pouring cups of tap water into pints and quarts, pints into quarts and gallons, teaspoons into tablespoons and tablespoons into cups until we were both awash and slipping on the wet linoleum.

“How many cups in a quart?”


“How many cups in a pint?


“How many quarts in a gallon?”

If I paused for a second I had to go through the drill again. For the quarts, I had to go into the kitchen to fill, return to the bathroom and pour it into the pail. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Flush.

“How many quarts in a gallon?”


“How many tablespoons in half a cup?”


The story of that evening gained a prominent place among the family legends. I think my siblings learned a thing or two, and I know I did.

We never did get to bushels (8 gallons) and pecks (2 gallons).

And just FYI, a gross is a dozen dozen: 144.

Su Lum is a longtime local who is measuring the hours until the election returns are in. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at

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