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Home is Where Everything Is

I can’t get through the 2020 Year of Blogging on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays, historic houses, and the occasional book-inspired post alone: the most important place for everyone this year was the home, and so I need to show you more of mine to be true to its spirit. There were also some big changes to my home this year: for better, for worse, and just change. Now that we’re in the final months of this challenging year, my overwhelming sentiment is one of gratitude: I feel fortunate to have a safe and secure home, full of lovely things, and more than sufficient space for work, sleep, play, and procrastinating. So here are my three domestic themes:

The year of three cats:

About a month ago, I lost my cat Darcy, who was nearly 20 years old. He had been sick with kidney disease for quite a while—so I knew this was coming, but I was quite determined that he should die at home. He lived his whole life in our house, and he was not a social cat: he really only tolerated me. Actually I think he liked me, as every time I walked into a room he was in he would turn up his nose and give me a little trill (the only word I can come up with to describe that sound—it wasn’t quite a meow). Because of the pandemic, and then my book contract, I had a lot of time with Darcy over these past seven months: we would sit together and I would work and he would sleep or stare at me. Despite eating and wanting to eat constantly, he grew thinner and thinner, but he seemed very comfortable and I just hoped he would drift off, at home. I had experienced the deaths of two previous cats—Flannery and Moneypenny—through disruptive seizures and I craved a peaceful death for Darcy, but my vet convinced me that a crisis was imminent, so we had to put him down. Our other cat Trinity came to us shortly after she had given birth to her litter outside, been rescued, and fixed–while all of her kittens were put up for adoption. She has been making “nests” and crying for them for five years, so I always thought after Darcy was gone we would adopt a kitten: I knew she would not recognize the kitten as her kitten, but I though it would be at least a better age match—so I moved pretty quickly to adopt and now we have Tuck! Trinity is not pleased with this addition: for a while she seemed to have lost her own personality and become stand-offish Darcy incarnate but she seems to be reverting to form now: hopefully she just had to establish her “ranking” status. We have a bit more to work out, here at home.

One of Darcy’s last photographs, Trinity, Tuck.

The new kitchen!

We’ve needed a kitchen remodel forever; I don’t know why we moved forward in this particular year but apparently renovations are a big trend in this home-focused year. Kitchens in older houses are generally just boxes added onto the back; our house’s original kitchen is in the basement, and it looks pretty original. Our “modern” kitchen looked like it was put in in the 1950s or 1960s, but we found the bones of a much older kitchen when we ripped everything out; the new kitchen is completely new, except for the floorboards, which we found under three layers of vinyl. Thank goodness for them, because my pet peeve is new kitchens that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the house. We put a lot of thought—and spent quite a lot of money—connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house through materials and details, because it really wasn’t before. We commissioned a big slab of mahogany for our island because we wanted to balance the mahogany staircase in the front, and more practical quartz for the other counters. I think we succeeded in making the “box out back” more connected to the main house, but it took all summer: another reason why Darcy and I got to spend so much time together up on the third floor away from the dust and the noise! Here’s the whole process: before, during, after:

Stripping down and building back layers: that wattle & daub look is called “backplastering” and look at the floor “before”! Cabinets everywhere on the first floor for six weeks or so. The general contractor was our neighbor across the street, Leon Kraunelis, of Redwine Development, floors by Dan Labrecque , and mahogany table top by Alpine Woodworks right here in Salem. I changed up my jadeite for ironstone from my friend Betsy at Windy Hill Antiques

Living and working all over the house:

So I received my book contract in early July and went right to work: primarily in my third-floor study, a third-floor bedroom (because it had a bed for Darcy) and a second floor bay-window room that we call the “Nosy Room” because the previous owners did and it looks out over all of Chestnut Street. I taught a summer class, and now I’m teaching four classes in addition to writing. I find that I need to change my surroundings to be productive—and I can’t really go anywhere: not to my office, not to the library. So I’m basically working all over the house. I’ve been zooming everywhere, just to change it up for my students:  I decorated the double parlors this past weekend with the rationale that it was for them but it was really because I bought so much John Derian Halloween stuff at Target!  The only room I haven’t taught in yet is the kitchen: moving into there this week.

Various “studies”, and one of my big scores of the summer: a Salem Marine Society certificate! I have never been able to resist John Derian, so off to Target I went as soon as his stuff hit the stores. I bought three of those black cats.


Early June Garden

I feel a bit selfish and indulgent featuring my garden during this troubling and tumultuous week, but I really don’t have anything else to offer. My dear readers and followers seemed to like last week’s garden post, and though I am no Marianne Majerus or Stacy Bass, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph of some flowers, like my beloved Trillium and Lady’s Slippers, both “out” this week! Our big kitchen demolition/renovation is starting very soon and there will likely put a lot of sawdust in this adjacent garden, so it’s the last we’ll see of it for some time. I’ll miss my garden this summer, but I’m off to our family house in Maine, where my father want to put in a new garden, so that project will be somewhat compensatory: soliciting all tips from Maine gardeners—-for a site with full sun but lots of ledge (we already have a rock garden).

Meanwhile, here’s my little city plot this past week:

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20200531_192145It’s a bit wild but that’s how I like it—contained chaos. But I will say that the anemones are MONSTERS this year. 

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20200531_162958I’m sorry that the Lady’s Mantle hasn’t popped yet but I do have Lady’s Slippers to show you!

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pixlr_20200601145348621And flourishing ferns, trillium, and one of my very favorite plants, lungwort, which looks like this all summer long, not just at showstopper time.


A Feminine Focus in the Garden

It wasn’t just Memorial Day: I feel like I’ve finally come to the end of a long string of obligations and am ready to focus on house, garden, reading, wandering about. We’re finally renovating our kitchen, so that will be a major focus for the next few months: I’ll do a “before” post next week, before nearly everything is torn out of that space, and then we’ll be able to celebrate the “after” later. The garden is looking good, although I fear it will turn into a construction zone. I do have a few last presentations—on Zoom of course–to give to several women’s organizations about the history of Salem women and the quest for suffrage. It is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, that that big anniversary is being overwhelmed by the pandemic, but I want to mark it in the best way I possibly can. As I was thinking about women’s history—and gardening at the same time—-I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history. Certainly this was not an original thought, but it nevertheless led me down various trails, and I ended up spending a rather blissful Memorial Day (after I gave a speech!) looking though the photographs of women photographers over the last century or so. This is just one small aspect of the intersection of women’s history/garden history: I’m going to explore more this summer.

When I’m interested in something, I’m generally interested in something in the past, and then I bring it forward, but this exploration started with two contemporary garden photographers whose work I had been admiring online and in a book I just received:  the Luxembourg photographer Marianne Majerus and the American photographer Stacy Bass. The former is almost like a painter in the garden; likewise the latter is a master (mistress) of light.

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Garden Marianne Majerus Garden Images

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Stacy Bass Gate (3)Photographs ©Marianne Majerus Garden Images and ©Stacy Bass: much, much more @ Marianne Majerus Garden Images and Stacy Bass Photography.

Is there a tradition of women’s garden photography? I had to go back, following English and American lines (even though Majerus is from the Continent she was trained in England and seems to photograph a lot of English gardens!). Though not strictly a garden photographer, I explored the wonderful work of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger, and through Traeger’s portrait rediscovered the AMAZING Valerie Finnis, whom I identified primarily as the namesake of variant of artemisia before I dug a bit deeper: what an extraordinary plantswoman and photographer! Even though she was a serious botanist, gardening seems like such a social activity for Finnis: she like to photograph people in their gardens, and she was also very, very fashionable, like her subject below, Rhoda, Lady Birley. I’ve just ordered Ursula Buchan’s collection of Finnis’s photographs, Garden People, and I can’t wait to receive it.

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Tessa Traeger Valerie FinnisFinnis CollagePhotographs by Tessa Traeger, including her marvelous portrait of Valerie Finnis in 2000, National Portrait Gallery. Garden People includes this amazing Valerie Finnis portrait of Rhoda, Lady Birley.

The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have several archival collections of women photographers, including those who specialized, or at least ventured into, garden photography: I love the dreamy mid-century images of Molly (Maida Babson) Adams (1918-2003) who photographed gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard over her 40+ year career. I did not identify the pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) with gardens before this little visual journey of mine, but they certainly constituted a sizable percentage of her impressive output.

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Garden Maida Buttrick Garden Concord MA Smithsonian

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Johnston CollagePhotographs by Molly Adams of gardens in Maine and Massachusetts, and Frances Benjamin Johnston of gardens in Virginia, Long Island, and Rhode Island, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress. 

And I ended up with the charming photographs taken by another pioneering woman photographer, Etheldreda Laing (1872-1960), who experimented with the first color photography process—autochrome—by taking wonderful photographs of her daughters Janet and Iris at their home, Bury Knowle House in Oxford, over a succession of summers between 1908 and 1914: before-the-deluge images indeed! And also, I think, the female gaze.

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-rose-arch Iris and Janet Laing 1910

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-blue-bonnet Iris L 1910

Garden Iris and Janet Laing c 1914The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.


Salem in the Time of Corona

I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.

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This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.

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But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.

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Split Scene Christmas

For the past couple of years, our family has split our Christmas holiday between Boston and Salem: we all want to be home for the holidays but also at the Copley Plaza! My husband and I started a Christmas Eve tradition at the Oak Room tradition a few years ago and now it has expanded to include spending the night at the hotel and attending the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Copley Square. I’m not sure we’ll do this forever—it is a bit indulgent, but it’s been perfect over the last couple of years. I’m still struggling with the sciatica after-effects of my hamstring strain from nearly a month ago, so there was no twilight long walk across the Common and over Beacon Hill for me, but I still managed to eat, drink, and be merry within the gilded confines of the hotel, and then on Christmas morning we returned to Salem for presents and dinner.

Christmas Eve in Copley Square:

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Christmas in Salem: including my beautiful presents—-a pair of elephant planters with a lovely turquoise glaze from my husband, and an antique feather painting from my parents. Apparently the latter has been hanging around our family house forever, but I never noticed it, and it has been restored to reveal some really stunning artistry. I’m obsessed so prepare for more feathers! As you can see, bears are this year’s animal theme: I have absolutely no subtlety in my Christmas decorating (or any decorating really) so these are just a few on display. I’m hoping everyone had a wonderful Christmas, and am really looking forward to the New Year.

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Winter White Houses

This passing year has been one of little ailments; I actually feel grateful they were not BIG ailments. I strained my right hamstring early last week and have been laid out ever since, meaning that I missed one of my very favorite Salem events: the Christmas in Salem house tour of this past weekend, the major fundraising event for Historic Salem, Incorporated. I was just too shaky and sore to go for it; I’m still a little shaky and sore. It was beautiful bright weather and several of the houses on the tour I had not seen before, so this was a real missed opportunity and I was downcast all weekend. I sent out my husband, and friends sent pictures, so I really have enough for a post but they’re not my pictures so they don’t feel like my story. Nevertheless, they are really spectacular, so I think I’ll feature them in a bit–along with my own decorations when I can get to them–but for right now I just don’t feel that merry and bright so I’m going to feature some stark winter white. As my world was confined to my laptop for several days, I discovered some new and new-to-me artists who conjured up images of winter house which more suited my mood. I was inspired by one of my favorite houses up in my hometown of York, Maine: it always looks a little lonely, and that’s how I felt this past weekend.

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The winter houses of artist, illustrator, and photographer Deb Garlick immediately captured my mood this past weekend: the first two are acrylics, but you can order the last as a print, along with other images, on her website. I find her work both elegant and accessible: she has some adorable “mini-portraits”, and, as befitting her name, also works in food photography and illustration!

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WW wm_thisoldhouseThe Old Farmhouse; The Edge of the Lake; This Old House.

Then I went for a touch more color in the watercolor washes of Kate Evans: her red barn was about as much red as I could handle this past weekend! She has beautiful forests and structures, highlighted in stark relief against all that negative space/snow.

Winter House Barn

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Red Barn and Woodcutter’s Cabin.

Winter landscapes can be very romantic, of course, but those views were not what I was looking for this past weekend: no horse-drawn sleighs, skating rinks, or cozy cottages. I didn’t want snow that looked even slightly fluffy. This eliminated artwork from much of the nineteenth century in my curation quest but things got bleaker in the twentieth, of course. I really enjoyed discovering the work of the Belgian landscape artist Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1942) whose works looks inspired by both the Northern Renaissance and twentieth-century realism at the same time. The “gloaming” of de Saedeleer’s second painting below is also evident in one of Edward Munch’s winter landscapes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whenever I indulge in Munch, I get a bit depressed, and I was already pretty dour, so I turned tail and looked at some slightly sunnier views of winter houses among the works of Swiss artist Cuno Amiet (1868-1961)—-got to get some yellow in here and I aspire to sled!

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Winter House Munch MFA

screenshot_20191209-155337_chromeView of Tiegem in Winter, c. 1935, Christie’s; Winter Landscape, c. 1920, Mutual Art; Edward Munch, Winter Landscape, c. 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cuno Amiet, Winter House.


Lit Up

The streetlight right near my house has been out since January, so lower Chestnut Street is bathed in darkness every night. There are some benefits to this, as this light shines right into my bedroom window when operational, but I still hope it gets fixed soon: the residents of our street purchased period-esque streetlights over a decade ago and I like my light. Because it’s been so dark–and I can see walking-tour leaders walking by with lanterns—I’ve been thinking about both historical darkness and the coming of light onto the streets of Salem, and then the other day I found a cache of cool photographs illuminating the latter era from the General Electric Company archive at the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) via Google Arts & Culture. Salem definitely has electrical credentials: Moses Farmer illuminated a room in his Pearl Street house every July night of 1859, an early “All-Electric” home on Loring Avenue drew headlines and crowds when it was first opened in 1924, and just down the street, the GTE-Sylvania plant employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989). The source of these photographs, however, is the even larger General Electric River works plant in nearby Lynn, which featured a large street lighting department. A 1916 GE catalog titled The Splendor of Well Lighted Streets showcases the company’s latest streetlights and observes that in the vicinity of Lynn are sections of streets and roads lighted in every different fashion to demonstrate in actual practice the differences in units and types of lighting: Salem clearly provided an effective demonstration setting, offering all sorts of opportunities to showcase GE’s newest lighting and traffic-signal products. The photographs below date from 1916 to 1931.

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Salem 1916 electrified General Electric Co archives

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Electric City HH 1926

Electric City BridgeEssex Street, 1918-1927(including a new Novalux light decorating for Christmas), the Hawthorne Hotel, 1926 (showcasing streetlight AND stoplight) and Bridge Street, General Electric Company Archives, MiSci: the Museum of Innovation and Science.

Electrical Lafayette

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Electric City Lafayette

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Electric City Not Sure.Lafayette Street, the intersection at West, Loring, and Lafayette, and (I think???) the road to Marblehead.

Electric City Almys 1916

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Electric City William WebberInterior Lighting at the Almy, Bigelow & Washburn and William G. Webber stores on Essex Street.

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Electrical ShootWashington Street during World War I: the new Masonic Temple building and the illuminated war chest; floodlights at a trapshooting competition somewhere in Salem.


We just Beauties See

I’ve always loved the seventeenth-century poem by Ben Jonson It is not Growing like a Tree with its closing lines In small proportions we just beauties see; And in short measures, life may perfect be. It evokes the ephemeral perfection of late May and early June, when the bleak New England “Spring” finally ceases and we are rewarded with a burst of flowering amidst all that new, lush green. As I write this, at night, I’m still kind of cold, but it certainly is beautiful out. I got my garden under control last week: I lost some things but most of my very favorite plants are doing just fine, including the “ladies”, slippers and mantle. I take long walks on these long days, and pictures of everything beautiful, even plants I don’t really like. I’ve never been a rhododendron fan, and as those are peaking right now, it is difficult to avoid them: consequently I have included an unusual yellow variety. Peonies are also just too much for me, but who can resist capturing those show-offs now? I actually find irises creepy, but they are so colorful and fleetingly stalwart I snapped them too. So here is a portfolio of late spring/early summer flowers, primarily from my own garden, the Ropes Mansion garden, the Peirce-Nichols garden which is the place to go for Bleeding Heart at this time of year, and the Derby Garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where the first of the peonies are just starting to pop. But you can spot flowers just walking down the streets of Salem at this time of year, along or through the cracks of an old fence.

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What’s blooming now in Salem: Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, Jacob’s Ladder, Wisteria, Irises, Mock Orange, Rhododendron, Bleeding Hearts, (flowering) Wisteria, Dame’s Rocket, Clematis, Columbine, Peonies, Comfrey.

Joy and Remembrance

My husband was down south in the snow this past weekend while I was home alone for the bright and chilly December weekend. It was quite festive: with a dinner, drinks, an open house and an estate sale, although I missed one event due to an extended nap! When I wasn’t out I watched my favorite holiday movies on TCM, so Barbara Stanwyck was much in view as she is in most of them. I finished decorating all of my mantels, although we still don’t have our Christmas tree up yet: several years ago we had a dried-out tree well before the holiday, a traumatic experience which has led me to push it later and later ever since. I’m worried that I’ve pushed it too late this year as my favorite Christmas tree lot just sold out! For those of you who might be surprised that I have included an estate sale among these festivities, let me elaborate: I have found that local estate sales are often community events which not only provide people (Yankees, of course) to obtain a bargain but also an opportunity to remember–and celebrate–the deceased through admiration and remembrance of his or her items. They really are quite poignant occasions. As I walked through the adorable house of a recently-deceased lady among her cherished collections, I kept hearing the phrases I remember when and she loved that. This particular lady was obviously an enthusiastic keeper of Christmas, so the sale was even more festive—and she had great taste (I hope people will say that same about me as they sift through my things—I better purge a bit). The weekend ended on a high note when I was invited to attend an open house in the home of my “daguerreotype crush” from last week’s tour: his name is Benjamin Kendall, by the way.

The second week of December in Salem: at home

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Around the McIntire District:

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At the estate sale & a drink with Mr. Benjamin Kendall

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It started in Salem for John Derian

I’ve been a fan of decoupage artist and entrepreneur John Derian forever or what seems like it: since I bought my first piece at a little Marblehead shop named C’est la Vie, which is still very much up and running. And then I bought more glass trays: most from this same shop but I also took pilgrimages to his stores in New York City and Provincetown. Thanks to his collaborations with Target, I was able to obtain even more of Derian’s rediscovered prints, covering utilitarian objects like storage crates, coffee cups, and jewelry boxes. Beautiful stationery that I can’t even bring myself to use. So now there’s probably something Derian in every room in the house (except for those inhabited exclusively by my husband and stepson) but despite his omnipresence in my life I somehow never knew that it all began in Salem for John Derian! I knew he was from Massachusetts, Watertown in particular, but not until I read the forward to an engagement diary which my parents gave me for my birthday last week did I realize that a few colorful prints found at the Canal Street Flea Market in Salem in 1983 inspired his whole brilliant career!

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Derian Collage

Colorful nineteenth-century floral prints found in a box of broken-up antique books and loose papers at a flea market in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m pretty sure this was the Canal Street Flea Market, which was before my time: I checked with Salem’s chronicler of record, Jim McAllister, to see if he had an image but no luck. This was a rather famous flea market though—I can remember hearing about it when I started poking around in markets a bit later than this—so I can understand how it might have drawn Derian up from Watertown. His description of how he was struck by the “power” of these particular images resonates with me completely—I’ve felt that power time and time again on my hunts. How impressive to be able to turn that reaction and appreciation into a decorative arts empire—and how neat that I can add this empire to the increasingly-long list of things that started in Salem.

John Derian around the house–not an exhaustive portfolio!

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Darien Sheep


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