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First pages

 

 

 

FOREWORD

 

 

In Ionia County, Michigan, in September of 1856, Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell, a 26-year-old schoolteacher and seamstress, daughter of Jacob and Sally, older sister of Solomon, Ellen, Jerome, and Frank, in earlier years bereaved of a sister Diana, began her fourteenth journal of her life. In gorgeous fine copperplate script now oxidized to brown, she numbered her pages and almost every day, told of the weather, the people, and the places in her life. We have temperature records and flood reports for one of the coldest winters on record in that area, election campaigning, an education conference featuring the now-famous John Milton Gregory (The Seven Laws of Teaching), and the work of a spiritualist medium.

In March 1858, she came to the last page, having in that book recorded her marriage to Otis Churchill on January 1, 1857, and the birth of their son DeWitt on September 6 of that year. These are the momentous events of the journal. But in between she records dreams, purchases, plantings and harvests, dances and myriad visits, maple sugar production, and the construction of a cutter (sleigh) for a honeymoon journey.

As I read and transcribed this journal of over 20,000 words, I was caught up in the history of Rosette and her family. I researched their gravestones and visited their farms in Michigan, still operating with owners and neighbors whose names appear on township plat maps going back over 150 years.

The Ramsdells were a distinguished family very active in education and politics. Rosette’s brother Solomon was a bugler in the Union Army, imprisoned for a time at Andersonville. But Rosette and her husband Otis Churchill disappear to history, except for scraps. A government form records Otis filing for divorce in 1888. I have found a couple of letters Rosette wrote to the women’s department of a national magazine in the 1890s. One newspaper reports a substantial inheritance Rosette received while living in Fargo, North Dakota in 1902, at age 72. And their son DeWitt’s gravestone is in Fargo, dated 1913.

Rosette, a profoundly literate young woman, uses the language of her education and popular novels she read, crafting beautiful turns of phrase to share delightful episodes of her life. Much is veiled—we do not know she is betrothed to Otis until their wedding day. But tracing back through earlier entries, we see that some of her sewing projects were included in her trousseau. She does not write of her pregnancy until the night she refers to her “cholic” and the summoning of her mother and a doctor who arrives a couple of hours after the birth. She says little of her affection for Otis, though she does refer to difficulties with her emotions. Naively she relates dreams our generation immediately recognizes the significance of, without herself seeming to understand them.

And in one amazing twist, the journal entry on her wedding day formally praising the worth of her groom is later edited in pencil—and not in Otis’s favor.

Rosette fascinated me, and I transcribed the last page of her journal with a pang. I have eagerly researched her life and the lives of the people around her. When I stood on the property of the families’ farms and gazed about at the abundant Michigan summer, the fields now tilled with modern equipment but layered over with centuries-old ways as well, I felt grounded in her world, even more than through her journal.

I believe Rosette deserves a wider circle of friends, so I present this story, consistent with her journal and containing much language from it. The italicized portions are transcribed or slightly edited from the journal, and elsewhere in the story I borrow language from the journal without indicating so. Rosette’s true story is within and beyond the journal. Where I do not have the facts I have invented likely ones. I hope the result is faithful to the real Rosette, her family, and their friends. If I misrepresent them, it is only because I have not yet come to know them well enough.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

1888 DAKOTA TERRITORY


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosette – Dissolution

 

 

Still quick and slim, still well turned out at fifty-eight. With shine to my hair—when I can dress it—and light in my eyes. But suddenly cut off, with the flourish of a pen, the run of a press. I sit here still, in this dark sod shanty, my granddaughter outside chattering, her mother Lillie dragging the dusty wash off the line. We’ve scraped the earth—or my son DeWitt has—and we women have tended the children and labored long days to feed us all. In the quiet the babe is asleep in the cradle beside me, in the spot where the sunshine pries through—and the wind in winter. A generation ago DeWitt was the babe in my lap—and his father Otis chopping trees to clear the farm near my folks in Michigan. Now my son breaks the bones of the earth to farm here—to coax food from the soil and beat back the vermin that race us to harvest.

That little waver of afternoon sun flickers down on the letter in my lap. It’s just a line or two from daughter Ella, folded round the notice in the newspaper. Otis has sued divorce on me. Two years’ absence and I have deserted him, the law says. So be it—I will not answer for it.

I rode the train here two years ago, rumbling out west, then north, to whatever might be here for me, for my eldest son’s family. A young family ought to have help from their folks in homesteading, as ours helped us. And so I came.

But, truth be told, moreso I left. I left what had long since shriveled and died. I left the oppressive eye of Otis’s old mother waiting to be served and watching to quaver at me. I left Otis’s deranged brother drooling and wild-eyed, gaining strength in middle-age. And I left my last babe, Percy—twelve then, fourteen now—who sees no wrong in Otis. So it is with the boys—they see their father’s muscled arms and callused, scarred hands. The gleam in his eyes they mistake as ambition for the farm. Always something new he longs for, and better—better than I, for certain.

Most sad of all, I left the girls to the daily care of that menagerie. Ella writes of her suitor, and soon will fly into his arms. Her sisters have yet a few years. Among them they can keep the house, their routines set. The rhythms of the harvests will well enough provide for them all. I am grown too old—no matter I can still turn a reel at a dance—to bear it any longer.

I consider things this late afternoon, the sun slanting now against my heart. It beats a little chill, uncertain. I’ve been here two years, but I still do not know my place. What is this land? The lakes of nearby Eden—wishful name!—do provide for some game and water, but naked we are on this vast plain. We were snug enough in the sod house these two terrible winters, with just one little one, and another soon to be born. So it is every winter here, they say. Privations of one sort or another seem to find me, however much I devise against them.

Thirty-odd years ago it seemed enough to blaze our life together in the rich land of Michigan. Oh, how I long for our trees—the fruit and sugar and lumber without end. Out here the settlers plant what they hope will become fortresses against the wind, but in these settling years they are but twigs. There we had to pull down the trees to live, and here we have to raise them up, and hunker down in the meantime.

How drawn my daughter-in-law Lillie is here—pale after the babies, and another already on the way for next spring. DeWitt flames up somewhat like his father, but without the pith to answer this grassy land. He grinds his teeth in the night, as he has always fretted against what is. All around us others have given up, going home on the train, bedraggled and thin. We all brought promises with us, though mine in middle-age were wry. My one trunk held two bed-covers from early years—spades and love-knot designs—and a hat or two, with the odd feather. And I brought my pens and ink and that one journal out of dozens—the one from the year of our marriage and DeWitt’s birth—to share with his family. I used to read bits of my journal to my brothers and sisters, my mother, my husband. And Otis read adventure tales to me and even to DeWitt as a young boy . . .

But our time for reading here has been lost in cares, or we find no heart left for it when time is right—when we are crowded in upon one another in this small place.

I turn to the page from that day:

 

Thursday January 1st. 1857. Another new year. And the day was a beautiful one, & one that will be remembered by me as being the happiest in my life; as I was joined in the holy & happy bonds of marriage with the man, whom above all the earth I sincerely love & respect. That man is Otis Churchill.

 

A tear at that, for what I’ve lost, when I thought bitterness had dried them all away.

I do not keep a journal now. The small ink supply I came with is gone, and much else calls for the money. I keep some pencils for when I needs must write a line or two. Now, this day with the news, I must tell the truth my two years’ sojourn has already told. And so the pencil strikes through “happiest” and stops.

A day to remember indeed, and even days of joy to follow, though set upon and finally swallowed up. I add a prefix here and here, then line out what my bride-self wrote to replace the words with what is, and has always been, though I did not know it then:

 

I was joined in the UNholy & UNhappy bonds of marriage with the man, whom above all the earth I sincerely love & respect DETEST & ABHOR. That man is Otis Churchill.


 

 

 

 

 

 

1856 MICHIGAN


 

 

 

 

From the Journal of Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell

September 1856

 

Monday 8th. The three Professors instructed us by turns. The studies presented were arithmetic, bookkeeping, elocution, &c. . . The evening was a beautiful one, the moon shining brightly. Mr. [Fox] has a very pleasant family, & is a gentleman himself. They have a melodean & accordeon here & music, combined with happy dispositions [that] make theirs a pleasant & happy home.

 

Thursday 18th. Mrs. B. was quilting. We all went to work & got it off about 9 o’clock I guess. . . . It is pleasant to be alone sometimes. We are free to act as we choose, having none but the Allseeing eye to spy our actions. I am now writing seated on a log, being on my way across the river. It is a pleasant, warm day, but the wind blows cool. Now my thoughts are calm and peaceful & then they are torn by contending emotions. But I am learning severe & profitable lessons, & by the help of God I will not complain. I am striving to do better, & upward & onward must be my course. The guilty conscience is its own accuser, & the wicked will be punished sooner or later.

 


 

 

 

 

Solomon – Town

 

 

The wagon jerked and rumbled along the ruts that we’ll soon build into a road out to our place from town, through the woods we’re clearing this year. So far it’s just our folks doing the work, but that makes it ours. As the eldest son of Jacob Ramsdell, my part today is to fetch my sister after her week at the Teachers’ Institute.

Since 1835, when Rosette was five and I a babe, we’ve been here in Michigan, come out from New York. Before that our grandparents—Ramsdells and Richardsons—came to New York from Massachusetts, and their folks to Massachusetts from England long ago. When I was just thirteen we came to Ionia County from Kalamazoo and began to build the house and barn on Dad’s place. Now we are waiting for Rosette to marry one day. And as she tarries with that, I have bought adjoining land to start my own farm and bring a wife to it—whoever she may be.

My father has a grand plan for us, and I have made it my own, doing what he would have me do and liking it. He is a wise man, and good—a just-graying patriarch on the model of Isaac or Jacob. He has a sense of history and prophecy to lead him and sees us filling this land with our own families and like-minded neighbors. He presides at table with local dignitaries, or makes envoys to neighboring towns, reaching his influence through the countryside as he once laid out the streets for Kalamazoo.

All his life Father has gathered property and knowledge to himself, but not hoarded it. He welcomes new neighbors and offers skill to those who want to learn. I double his production as I match his ways, overmatching his strength and stamina now. I even begin to gain my own authority with those around us. Only Myron King, south of us, with his own one-hundred sixty acres, has such success as does the Ramsdell enterprise.

I may be young, but I see my way—his way—is a good one. By my age Father already had a wife and child, and I am eager for my own. When I walk the wagon tracks near our place I spy out this or that plat and consider—yes, that’s a good one. No, that one floods and the soil is sandy. I want to take the best of what Father has taught me and then add my own ways to it. But I am content now to watch and wait for just the right girl.

Rosette has gone forth as a teacher, to play out Father’s education ideals or follow those of others he thinks worthy. I drove her in our wagon last week for the Teachers’ Institute in Lyons, where I was to play fiddle at the hotel that night. But we almost failed to arrive. With the bridge out we were obliged to ford the river there. The horse, Bruno, shied as we entered, rearing back and thrashing so that we were nearly thrown out. He broke the forward end board and whippletree—at least, that was all I could see at the time.

Rosette jumped out of her own accord, and several nearby fellows came to our aid. The things in the wagon—our bags, some maps of hers, and my fiddle—were kept safe, though I hate to think what could have happened to them if we had overturned. “No matter!” Rosette cried, her skirts dragging wet from her landing just at the edge of the water. But my sister, alone among all the ladies we know, wears short skirts and bloomers, she calls them, and the costume proved handy that day. She waved me off to see to the wagon—“I shall soon enough be in dry things.” She matter-of-factly climbed the bank by where the wagon fetched up, then began to shed her boots and squeeze her clothing dry.

I let myself down into the waist-high water and calmed Bruno, stroking his neck and murmuring to him, both of us soaked. “What a nice fix you’ve gotten us into now!” I chided him. I looked again to Rosette and saw as she slipped her bare feet into her sodden boots, took up her maps and bag, and began to walk the small distance from there.

Our old friend Luther Smith was one of the men who helped, and together we got Bruno up the bank on the homeward side. We inspected the damage, and I knew it was more than I could handle before I had to be at the hotel. Repairs would have to wait.

“Well, Solomon,” Luther said, “I’d be pleased to take Bruno to my place to stable him until tomorrow.”

“That would be a kindness,” I answered.

“And I’ll stable you, too, if you can make your way along the river yourself after you play tonight,” he said with a grin.

“Or,” I replied, “You can come to the hotel and let my fiddle pay for my keep.”

“And lead you back, to make sure you don’t lose your way,” he said.

“—And make sure I don’t lose my way.”

We secured the wagon and walked Bruno along the course of the river north and east, toward Montrose, along the rise over the steep riverbank. We were quiet, remembering our many woods walks in our growing-up years—he silently pointed out the tree still bearing our old rope. We used to tag along to town with Father and disappear to our swinging tree when the water was high, letting loose to fall yelling into the rippling current.

I cleaned myself up at Luther’s shanty he’s setting up for a farm nicely situated in a bend of the river above the mill—safe even when it floods. Then I made my own way into Lyons with my fiddle for my engagement.

It’s becoming a fine town—fresh hammering and painting build out from the center every time I come in from the farm. Main Street with the bank and the hotel and other shops, and around the corner, other places of business. The Institute would board the teachers in various homes, as they are used to, and save the expense of the hotel. I wondered where Rosette would stay, but I knew she would tell me all when she came home the next week.

I climbed the steps to the Pacific Hotel. Only a half-dozen were there having dinner, but with white tablecloths and a waiter. I found my spot in the corner and unlatched the case, and two diners looked up. What would they want? A scherzo, a Foster, a hymn? Both were strangers to me, but we have many strangers these days, the population of Ionia County tripling in a decade. If I gathered correctly, they might be professors with the Institute. So a scherzo. But first a mellow hymn to lead the mood.

As I played, one leaned toward the other to speak over my music, but the other nodded and turned partway toward me. When I finished playing, the two men waited until I was in the midst of my next piece, a little folk waltz, and took their leave. A young couple tapped their feet to the music, and I played more of that sort until Luther and some other men came in to hear. Then I began with the lively jigs the country people favor.

Late in the evening the diners faded out the door, and Luther and I made our way back to his place. We talked men’s talk of the river and the town and livestock. In years past we might have talked boys’ talk of—well, of the river and the town and livestock!

I managed to fix the wagon early next morning and got it back home for our work of the day. I stayed on the farm for the week, until time to fetch Rosette again at the close of the Institute. She intended to walk the seven miles, as we agreed even before the accident. But Luther has invited us both to spend the evening at his little shanty with some others, so I mean to meet her with the wagon.

* * *

I was just a mile from Lyons when I saw her, satchel on her arm, walking well toward home. She started at seeing me, then regained her stride before smiling a greeting and holding up her bag with her head cocked to the side. I climbed down and helped her up, which we would never have done at home. Town ways.

“I see you’ve got the wagon fixed, and Bruno settled again.”

“Yes. Luther helped with tools, but that beast didn’t want to see the river again twice in a week! How have you fared, Sister?” I guided the horse to continue toward Luther’s instead of home, but Rosette did not notice. I wondered when she would.

“Just as I left town I tussled with a little war-like dog!” she laughed. “Have you ever seen him? He chooses a victim, it seems, almost every hour. He challenged me with a bark and pulled at my skirts, then trotted off so dignified.” She paused, to better supply my curiosity. “There were such a lot of things to think about, a whole world of ideas at the Institute. Fine and noble ideas. The two professors dined at Mr. Fox’s yesterday, and I asked a question.”

“So you spoke to them? I think I played for them last week. And why were you at Fox’s? I don’t know about him. . . .” I thought of him sidling up to young ladies. I don’t like to think of him keeping boarders.

“Yes, I spoke to Professor Gregory, and he was gracious in his reply. I’ll tell about Fox’s in a moment—” she added. “Professor Gregory’s text for Sunday was, ‘Children are an inheritance from Heaven.’ He said he thought perhaps it came from the Psalms.”

“Something of that sort.” I flicked the leads and clucked to urge Bruno on. Surely John Milton Gregory had deeper things to remark than that. But once Rosette sees a bright bird of an idea, she chases it without thought of the whole of the wood.

“Wait!” she cried. “I forgot! I need my maps. I engaged with Mr. Crampton to varnish them.” We had all admired the maps Father brought from Kalamazoo for Rosette’s teaching—Michigan, New York, and the World.

“Oh, why couldn’t you remember before we got this far?” I cut the horse back around to face toward town again.

“And why were we going that way, Sol? Home is the other way.”

“I wondered when you would notice that,” I smiled. “Just be patient, and you will see.” We doubled back, crossed the repaired bridge, and soon found ourselves in front of the Pacific Hotel. I drove down to Crampton’s and she jumped down from the wagon, forgetting her town manners in her rush, and popped into his door. A few minutes later she shouldered her way out with her three rolled maps.

“Now what were we talking of before?” she asked as she climbed back up and tucked the maps under her skirts between us.

“Professor Gregory, and children, I believe.”

“Yes. I asked whether perhaps children were a treasure for all and not just for their own parents. I could feel my cheeks flame with fright and feared they all saw it. But he approved of my question. He said that yes, our education of them must be like caring for treasured goods from our ancestors. They will make our future.”

“Very fine. But surely you had some fun times, too.” We put town behind us and bumped down toward the river.

“Well, of course I saw Martha, and met some others at Fox’s. We could have used your fiddle, though he played melodeon and accordion. Such fun. And such a dream I had there!”

“Oh, your dreams. Of course. Tell me this one, and then we’ll talk of the Institute.”

“Well,” she answered, “I’ll read it to you from my journal.”

“You’ve just started a new one, haven’t you?” She pulled out the marbled brown book from the satchel at her feet. My sister has been filling journals like this one since she was a young girl. Her ink pot and pens are always in perfect order whenever someone comes out of the woods needing them for some note or other. Many of the settlers have but shanties, but nevertheless do business in full legal order. They make promissory notes and appeals to law to dignify what might be fistfights and crop-burning in a less civilized place. “What number is this?”

“Fourteen,” she said. “And I started this one last week. I wonder how far it will go, and what will happen in those pages.” She fanned the clean, ruled leaves, only the first few covered in her feathery hand. “My life has not been so eventful, but I keep finding things to write about. What do you think will fill this one? The last ones have Kalamazoo, and my school here. And what I thought was to be my marriage . . . Painful things—I almost wish I hadn’t written my hopes.”

She opened to the second page. “But here’s my dream, then:

 

I dreamed that I was staying at Mr. Fox’s and doing somewhat ill while there. He was determined to give me some medicine. He finally persuaded me to take some liquid, out of a tea-spoon which he held for me. I afterwards repented and told him I thought he had done very wrong, and myself too.

 

“What do you make of that?” she asked.

“I don’t like it, is what I make of it. You didn’t take any medicine or drink from him, did you? And surely he wasn’t in your room?!”

“Oh no! I did meet him in the hall while I was in my dressing gown and cap, but his daughter-in-law was with me then. And in the evening we sang this song I copied from their Sanders’ Fourth Reader. Here’s a part of it . . .” She turned the page as we began bumping past the road onto the wagon track near the river ford, on our way to Luther’s.

 

I love to look on a scene like this,

Of wild and carefree play,

And persuade myself that I am not old,

And my looks are not yet gray.

For it stirs the blood in an old man’s heart;

And makes his pulses fly,

To catch the thrill of a happy voice,

And the light of a pleasant eye.

 

“I daresay you caught old Fox’s eye,” I grumbled.

“Oh, Sol, he means no harm, and we were in good company, altogether proper.” She closed her book and slipped it into her bag. I left her to her faraway look and considered why I was so sharp with her—well, because she hasn’t much wisdom. She needs an anchor, and then I would not fret about Fox and others like him. Well, not so much.

 “But Professor Gregory?” I asked, breaking her quiet. “First, what is he like? I thought I might have seen him when I played at the hotel the other night. Father says he is becoming an important leader in education.”

“Yes, you said that about playing for him. John Milton Gregory—such a name! He had beautiful manners, and a commanding voice. When he left he smiled at me in a telling way, to approve my words, I hope. But the young ladies were neat and well-spoken. I found I was able to be so much like them I hardly knew myself.”

“Soon it will be the old life back at home, though.”

“And where are we going, after all?” she asked, looking around at nothing but trees closing in on the track.

“Our dear Mr. Luther Smith has invited us to take our supper with him. And I did not think you would refuse a country evening, even after your elevated sojourn in Lyons.”

“The town isn’t so fine as all that, though, you know,” she scolded. “I’m glad we are going to Luther’s. Like old times. But I just remembered—” she caught herself. “I started at Mr. Hubbel’s to board, with another teacher, and they have a parrot that talks almost like a human.” She stuck her head over in front of me and wrinkled up her nose to whine, “‘Polly wants a supper, Polly wants a supper!’”

I laughed as she wanted me to and asked, “So how came you to Fox’s, then? You started at Hubbel’s?”

“On the second day Hubbel said he could no longer keep me, so the Institute sent me to Fox instead.”

“Well, if Professor Gregory and others were there, they must be keeping a good place.”

“Yes,” she sighed. “And Professor Gregory was not the only one—the other lecturers were fine as well. But I was terrified when they told us we would be writing a composition to present at the close! I’ve never written one in my life!”

“For all you’ve read them, though,” I said.

“Well, of course, and mine is no matter. But Miss Gower’s—oh, how lovely!”

“The principal teacher of the Union School should have an exemplary piece, I should think.”

“Sometimes I despair of ever approaching what she is,” she sighed.

“You do well enough—else the schools would not call on you to teach.” I pulled back on the reins as Bruno picked his way over the rough ground.

Luther was finishing his milking as we arrived. After we climbed down from the wagon, he handed me the pail for a supper he laid on a board across the back of his goat cart. “Pleased to see you, Miss Ramsdell. I am honored to entertain you and your distinguished brother with this simple repast.” He indicated his spread of a bowl of raspberries, a plate of pancakes, and some boiled eggs.

“We are honored beyond measure,” Rosette replied, taking up his antique courtesy, and extending her hand to his bow for a mock kiss. We were suddenly back in childhood with a beloved playmate. When he lived with his father, the three of us would scamper off to the creek when we could. Luther dreaded his father, and when he could escape their place we’d find him on ours. I don’t know how such a noble young man could come of a scoundrel like Frog Smith, but each man must make his own way. And Father and Mother gladly folded Luther into our family when he appeared among us.

I once thought Luther could be a good husband for Rosette. And so he could. But she—however much she humors him—doesn’t think much of goats and a riverside shanty, unless it has a prosperous mill attached. And Luther is really a brother to us both.

He unhitched Bruno and led him to a bit of pasture the goat had not yet taken. At sunset we welcomed other friends who came through the woods to join us—Amos Utter and his betrothed, Nancy, and my luckless friend Cornelius McKelvey, who stumbles and breaks things and manages nevertheless to keep his farm together. These and a few others formed our company. The ladies applauded when I fetched my fiddle, and they danced with the men and twirled their skirts coyly among the few remaining fireflies. Nancy cast adoring looks at Amos in the firelight as I sawed away. Luther pranced about as master of ceremonies, banging on any old thing to keep time.

Rosette took part but held herself aloof, in all her tiny dignity a picture of Father, conscious of her rank. She is silly with me, but to others she is a Ramsdell, a teacher, the daughter of Jacob. Her genuine affection for Luther cannot hold itself back, though. She smiled and sparkled, gracing his ball with sincere good will. The moon shone brightly enough to read by, and as the company departed and Luther and I hitched up Bruno to the wagon again, Rosette scratched a few lines into her journal.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Before she died in 2013, my mother said of Rosette's journal, "You should write this story." But teaching writing for three decades and homeschooling four children left little time for my own writing, until now. ROSETTE is my debut novel, and I have had a marvelous time researching and writing it. My physics professor husband and I live amidst rolling dairy-farm fields in Pennsylvania, our children are taking their places in the world, and I look forward to writing for many years to come.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Rosette's journal was a thrift store find! I was captivated by Rosette's voice, by the penciled-in changes on the page describing her wedding day, and by the research that followed. I'm excited to tell her story, to give a voice to someone who slipped away into history more than a century ago.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, David Guterson, Mark Helprin, Joyce Carol Oates, and Mary Doria Russell. Jill Paton Walsh in her fictionalized true story--GRACE. All who make deep truths resonate and the everyday sing.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
Readers should linger with the cover, bask in its atmosphere. The landscape of pioneer Michigan, Rosette's bloomer dress, the journal she holds--the details reflect the true story and the fiction. I commissioned this painting from my artist daughter, Betsy Marsch.

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