Lum: Those elusive top shelves |

Lum: Those elusive top shelves

Su Lum

It used to be that nothing could be hidden from me; I could climb anywhere in the house, and if a cookie crumb were at large, I would find it. Up on the wringer washing machine (the drain spout my stepping stone) and up onto and along the shelves above it, I’d seek my quarry.

I was little. I could hide among coats hanging on the hat rack. Extending my body into the shape of an X, I could walk up door frames and hang from the upper sill or disembark at the top of the small closet, where I would crouch, hidden by all the hats that had been thrown up onto the space between the top of the closet and the ceiling.

My paternal Southern grandmother came to live with us at the ancient age of 57. She was so old she could hardly do anything except iron, hang out the clothes and rock in her rocking chair, so she would call upon me — the house monkey, age 4 — to climb the cabinets and shelves, fetching whatever she couldn’t reach.

Gran and I weren’t chatting buddies; what could a person of such advanced years possibly have to say that would interest me? Her favorite thing to say was, “Get me mah switch!” But I did hang around the kitchen and learned quite a bit about cooking just by watching and helping when I wasn’t climbing and toting.

I especially liked getting the pudding dishes because they were on the third shelf of a cabinet in the breakfast room and retrieving them involved a stool to a counter and then up on my knees on the first shelf and bringing down the six dishes one at a time, shelf by shelf.

How a little package of butterscotch or chocolate pudding would satisfy all of us is a mystery. I think the answer was that it didn’t, but a little dab was better than nothing. Hey, there was a war on. One of the first things I learned to cook was pudding, with its reward of licking the pot.

The dishes were made of clear glass, shaped like apple halves.

Seventy-five years later, the monkey child is more than 2 decades older than harmless old Gran. If I did manage to get up on a chair with my bad knees now, it’s a good bet that I wouldn’t be able to get back down.

I can manage to reach things on the front of the second-level shelves of my kitchen cabinets, and I can usually get at the things in the back with my mechanical gripper, but I forget about the third shelves. The third shelves in my house are tantamount to black holes.

A few weeks ago, my friend Hilary and I were having dinner and she served a sauce in a little glass apple dish.

“Where did that come from?” I asked, already knowing that it must have come from a third shelf, where Hilary regularly stashes stray items. I’ve got some little round glasses that have disappeared — I know they’re up there somewhere — but I was especially happy to be reunited with the apple dish, so much so that I ordered another apple dish on eBay, one the size of our old pudding dishes. Hilary is biding her time.

My daughter Skye asked about one of my backpacking journals (backpacking — yes I did), and I knew exactly where it was: on a third bookshelf in my bedroom, covered with a thickness of dust bunnies you could plant peas in.

There’s a complete set of Ngaio Marsh on the third shelf of a bookcase in the oxygen room (and a complete set of Agatha Christie under the bed — almost as bad) and who knows what in the high cabinet over the closet in the living room; I know those reel-to-reel tapes are up there. The vintage Springbok puzzles I can’t see to put together are third-shelfers, and there’s a double cabinet over the refrigerator that once held, among other things, a bundt pan and a hinged pan that made four round loaves of bread, but who knows what’s up there now?

One adjusts. When was the last time I had call to bake four loaves of bread at one time, round or otherwise? Use it or get rid of it. If it has sentimental value, put it on the third shelf.

Su Lum is a longtime local who is using her two apple dishes and loves that bread pan. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at


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