Author: Mary Ann Johnson

Would You Turn Back Time?

On a mature dating site commercial, a giddy woman said, “It’s just like being back in high school.” YIKES! I liked high school. It turned out okay. In my yearbook, I’m listed as “The most typical girl”. But I wouldn’t want to go back!

When I got married, I was happy. Our children were born; we loved them and learned a lot of things. Some of it was great and some was hard, but all in all, it evened out and we had fun. I was happy. But I wouldn’t go back!

There isn’t a single point in my past life that I would willingly return to. You know why? Because today I’m a better person. I know more. I’ve learned to value now what I couldn’t value when I was younger. This is the natural course of life; with experience comes wisdom.

Relationships are valuable

Last week I mentioned one of the pivotal moments in my life, playing Emily Gibbs in the play Our Town, when I was sixteen. It was pivotal because Emily learned the hard way that going back isn’t always good. Going back showed her that often we can’t “see” one another because we’re too busy doing all the things that we think matter – laundry, cooking, education, church duties, work, making money, changing the world. Emily understands for the first time that all that matters are the relationships we have.

When I’m making a big decision, I ask myself, “How will this affect my ability to nurture my current relationships?” I recently asked that question as I considered some important life choices, and I ultimately made different decisions than I might otherwise have made.

That’s the great perk of aging. We have a clearer perspective on what really matters. That’s why grandparents can be so great. That’s why they have so much fun with grandchildren. It isn’t really because we don’t have to discipline or manage our grandchildren. It’s because we truly want a relationship with them. We like them. We “see” them.

Maybe it’s because the sand is running out of our hourglass faster and faster. We’re aware that we don’t have all the time in the world. We just have now, today. That’s all. It’s all anyone has. We can fill it with “busy” or we can simplify and make room for relationships. It’s a choice!

Tips to Make Room for Relationships

  • Simplify your calendar.
  • Simplify your activities.
  • Stay home more.
  • Read as a family.
  • Turn off all the electronics and play a game.
  • Fold laundry together.
  • Eat together.
  • Talk and listen.
  • Laugh more.
  • Let stress go.

Ask yourself, “What could I let go of today to have more room for what matters most?”

One day you’ll be older. Your kids will be older. You won’t care how clean your house was, how spectacular your yard, if you homeschooled or public schooled. You won’t value the amount of money you made, how often you went to Disneyland, if your kids got a new bike every year or what college they got in to. You won’t care if they were carpenters or lawyers. You won’t care if you impacted thousands of people. What you will think about more than anything else is the condition of your relationships. That, my friends, is what you’re going to treasure most. Take time now to make them sweet.

I appreciate your shares. Thank you!

What Is The Best Gift?

When we moved to Laurel, Montana over 3 decades ago it was a jolt. We had lots of little kids and we didn’t know anyone. We had no family in Montana and no one we knew had ever lived there.

The second week in our new town we got a visit from an older woman who was part of the religious community we would be joining. We hadn’t even been able to attend yet. To our knowledge, very few people knew we had moved to town. But here on my doorstep was Millie Giovetti, a woman who was destined to become our dear friend. In her hands, she held two homemade pies. Not one, two! She had taken the time to find out a bit about this new family who had moved into her neighborhood and church. She knew that there were seven of us. She understood that two pies would definitely be better than one. I had felt overwhelmed with this move and her gesture of kindness was amazing to me. But even more, was the message it sent –   I see you; I hear you; you matter to me.

While we lived in this small town, I found a best friend. I hadn’t had many of those in my lifetime, so it was a wonderful gift. Linda Brannon, like Millie, took the time to find out about me and my family, she paid attention. We were more than just a name on a church roll or people who lived down the street.

Every year at Christmas Linda made hundreds of cookies that she gave to friends and family. She would wrap them beautifully in one and two dozen. But every December would find her on my doorstep with a platter of cookies. Not one or two dozen but at least 8 dozen to bring joy to our family which had swelled to nine. It wasn’t the cookies that meant so much to me but the message they sent – I see you; I hear you; you matter to me.

This is the message our children need and want to hear from us – I see you; I hear you; you matter to me.

In Highlights magazine’s annual State of the Kid Survey, a nationally representative sample of 6- to 12-year-olds were asked, “Are your parents ever distracted when you’re trying to talk to them?” Sixty-two percent of children said yes (Highlights, 2014). That’s a lot of kids feeling as if they might not matter.

Take the time today to let your children know that you see them; that you hear them; and that they matter to you.

• STOP what you’re doing. Put your cell phone down, turn away from the computer, turn off the vacuum
• Get on their level. Kneel if you need to.
• Look them in the eye.
• Respond to what your child is feeling, not only what they’re saying.
• Listen with patience and interest.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Give them 3-5 minutes. If they need more time and you need to do something else, tell them honestly. Set a time to get back with them and then do it.

Kids measure love primarily by our attentiveness to them. When you stop what you’re doing to listen to what they want to share, look at a picture they made, or touch them with intention, it says I see you; I hear you; you matter to me. Knowing that they matter is the best gift we give to our kids.  

I appreciate it when you share. Thank you!

You Can’t Know Until You Get There

Sometimes parenting seems like a thankless job. Many things must be done. Often, it seems, those we serve aren’t aware of, resent, or push away our efforts. I’ve learned that you really can’t know until you get there. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Our children don’t deliberately set out to be ignorant of the blessings, help, and support we give them. But it can seem like it because we expect them to see through our eyes and our experience. But they can’t because you can’t know until you get there.

I remember a conversation with a teen of ours who was struggling. She couldn’t understand why we were so worried and up in arms. She was fine! Then she had a child and that child became a teen. Then my child understood and talked to me about all we had tried to do for her and how grateful she was. You can’t know until you get there.

I recall dragging my kids to prayer in our bedroom each morning. Oh, my goodness, the fussing, snoring, and resentment. Later, much later, one of those same bleary-eyed kids told me that those prayerful moments had meant so much later when she was away from home, alone, and in trouble. She said the memory and practice was a lifeline. It gave her the courage to seek divine help which changed her life. You can’t know till you get there.

As a mother of seven, meals were HUGE! I made meals that were attractive and varied. They took time to make and then people didn’t want to eat what was served. Getting the response I got, year after year, was exasperating. Recently, one of my daughters said, “Mom, I don’t know how you did it. You made such great meals. I struggle every day to figure out what to cook and then to get it done.” She has finally gotten there. She appreciates my efforts, but it came over 2 decades after the fact. You can’t know till you get there.

A few years ago, one of my sons in his forties, embarked on a challenging educational path. He would call home looking for support, someone who would tell him how wonderful he was and that he could do it. This is the same son who resented our efforts to guide him along an easier path when he was a teen. But here, a few decades later, he was reaching out for that very thing. It mattered to him and he knew the value. You can’t know till you get there.

There isn’t a timeline for getting there. Just this last week I was talking to a friend who’s an expert knitter. She’s in her 80’s and has a daughter in her 60’s. She was showing me a sweater that she’d just finished that you could have bought in any high-end store. It was gorgeous! She said that her next project was a sweater for her daughter. I replied that her daughter was lucky to have a mom who could knit a sweater that would cost a few hundred dollars. She replied, “I don’t think she knows or feels lucky.” There it is again. You can’t know till you get there. One of these days the mother who knits will pass away and then her daughter will miss the sweaters and she’ll know how lucky she was all those years.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our children to appreciate their blessing. We should. However, sometimes you’ll feel invisible and unappreciated. When that happens remember they’ll understand and be grateful when they get there. This is a useful practice because just knowing that it takes time to get there helps as we do what must be done for those we love. Knowing that they will eventually get there and that it will matter to them then, makes Now better.

A Casserole is NOT Romance

Time and Attention are Rare

and Valuable Gifts

Don and I have been married for almost 50 years. One day I mentioned that I thought we needed a little romance. We’ve had plenty of romance in our marriage, just not lately.

A few days later Don spent a couple of hours in the kitchen making a terrific casserole for lunch. He set the table and we ate together. It was nice and we had a fine conversation. We both enjoyed it. As we were finishing, he looked at me and said, “This is how I’m romancing you.” Hmmm.

Later romance came up again. Don said, “Gee, honey, I made you a casserole.”

“Don, a casserole is not romance. It’s nice, it’s kind and it’s serving but it isn’t romance. I think you’ve been married too long and need to look romance up in the dictionary.”

“Then I don’t get any points for romance, right.”

“Right, no points.”

I wasn’t getting what I needed, and Don was disappointed because he took two hours and did something nice for me and got no points for romance.

Parents find themselves in this same situation, not getting what they feel are their well-deserved points. Didn’t you cook and serve a wonderful meal? Didn’t you take your kids across town to their ballet lessons and don’t you do that every week. Didn’t you wash the clothes and clean the house. Didn’t you sit with the whole family while they watched Benji?

Because you’ve invested so much time you equate that with being present with your children, just like Don thought investing time equated to romance. But doing the work of parenting doesn’t equate to being present.

An Example of Presence

I have a friend who had nine children, all under 11, living with her. One day she was distracted, interrupted and overly busy. As the day wore on the children began fighting, were noisy, and making messes. Finally, just before dinner, she stopped what she was doing, and they spent some time together. She listened to them, read to them, engaged with them, and had fun with them. It wasn’t a great amount of time, only about 30 minutes. Nevertheless, she said it made a difference in the rest of the evening. They calmed down. Things were more peaceful. They enjoyed eating together and being with each other.

Being present is giving our children our whole attention, even if only for a short time. This’s what children need and want.

And by the way, that is what is ultimately needed in most relationships. So, save yourself some time and tune in, really tune in, if only for short amounts of time. It will get you points. : )

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We Don’t Understand Do We!

When I was sixteen I portrayed Emily Webb in the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The plays about the short life of Emily Webb, her growing, loving and dying. It’s about her realization that all that really mattered were her relationships. After her death, she laments that most of us are too busy with cleaning, cooking, work, hobbies, getting through each day, that we miss what matters most.

As you read these lines, you will feel her sorrow and the urgency to look at one another and really see.

Emily: Live people don’t understand, do they?
Mrs. Gibbs: No dear-not very much.
Emily: Oh, Mother Gibbs, I never realized before how troubled and how…how in the dark live persons are. From morning till night, that’s all they are – troubled…But Mother Gibbs, one can go back…into the living.
Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can…All I can say is, Emily, don’t.
Emily: But I won’t live over a sad day. I’ll choose a happy one…
Mrs. Gibbs: At least, choose an unimportant day. It will be important enough.
Emily: I choose my twelfth birthday.
____________________________________
Emily: Mama, I’m here! Oh, how young Mama looks! I didn’t know Mama was ever that young.
Emily watches breakfast being served and conversations between her family members.
Emily, with mounting urgency: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead…Mama. Wally’s dead too…But just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.

Emily, in a loud voice, to the Stage Manager: I can’t. I can’t go on. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize…Do any human beings realize life while they live it?
____________________________________
Mrs. Gibbs: Were you happy?
Emily: No…I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people…They don’t understand, do they?
____________________________________
I thought about this play as I was looking through old photos and weeping and weeping. I saw my two brothers and my dad who are gone. There were aunts and uncles and cousins, all gone now. Here is the beginning line of a poem written by my living brother not too many years before my dad passed away-      “I know this man as father, yet I know him very little.” It’s a beautiful poem, all about what he learned from my dad that has helped him in his life. Yet the beginning line holds a world of meaning and experience between the two.

Here is an excerpt I found in a letter I had written my dad many years ago. “Thank you for a piece of yourself. The letters from you to grandpa confirmed something I already knew, that as we grow older, we make friends of our family members.”

Why is that? Why do our children have to grow up and go away before they become our friends, before we know who they are, who they really are, if we ever even get that far? I think it’s because we’re so busy keeping track of what they will eat and won’t eat, how well they read, how they take care of responsibilities, their grades, who they hang out with, if they speak politely, and all the other concerns of good parents.

We need to be present. We need to listen to each other. We need to ask better questions. We need to look at each other. We need relationships that go beyond just sharing a home or a workspace or a church pew.

I clearly understand being present. I teach it all the time. But being present can be tough. I admit it. I talk with my mom enough. I don’t sit and listen to my husband dream enough. I don’t know enough about the hopes and dreams of my adult children. I don’t call friends enough.

We live as if life will always be the same. The people we love will always be here. We have plenty of time to know them, to love them. But we don’t! Life moves on relentlessly. People move away, sometimes they die. Sometimes they just stop being an everyday part of our lives. Connecting with people we love, every day, in all the mundane moments, that is the essence of a life well-lived.

These moments happen at the dinner table, during bath time, bedtime and family time. They happen in the car on the way to the store. These moments happen as we weed the garden, clean the garage, take a walk, and do the dishes together.

They happen when we free our mind from the babble of what must be done next and focus on what is happening now, right now, with this child, with this spouse, with this friend, with this parent or sibling. They happen when we’re not so caught up in life that we can’t appreciate life.

Being Present is a skill.

We need to practice it with real intent. When we fall short, we practice some more. Whatever we focus on grows and expands. We can use this principle to become better at our relationships. Spend more time looking at your children and hearing them. Don’t be as Emily Gibbs laments, “blind people.”

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What do you want to bequeath to your children?

I came from a family of complainers. I can still hear my grandmother complaining to my grandfather about all kinds of things. I can hear my aunts and their complaints. After all, we used to hide under the kitchen table, which had a cloth that reached to the floor and listen in on their private conversations. I, in turn, became a complainer. When I listen to my sisters and cousins, I hear the echoes of those long dead and their complaints. It’s a family tradition, of sorts.

I recently visited with a friend who spent a great deal of time putting herself down. After each remark, she would laugh as if it was a joke. But here’s what I know, we mean what we say even if we try to pass it off as a joke. What comes out of our mouths is an indicator of our inner belief.

I know a man who has difficulty walking. When he’s going anywhere, you can hear him say, “I always find the perfect parking spot.” It amazes me how often he does find the perfect spot. He expects good and often that’s exactly what he gets.

When we talk about preparing our kids for the real world we often think in terms of how well they manage their private space (bedroom), how able they are to stay clean and care for their belongings, if they stay on task and get homework done or other chores, and how well they make, save, and spend money.

It’s useful to think about our way of being and what we may be passing along to our children.

Do we manage our stories about ourselves and others? Do we look for the bright side in tough situations? Are we grateful even when we must forego or wait for something we want? Do we complain? Do we problem-solve well? What about our personal boundaries or our own self-management?

We don’t do this inventory so that we can beat ourselves up over our weaknesses. We do it because as we work on our weaknesses and improve our way of being, we pass along one of the most important things we can give our children. We show by example that they are 100% responsible for how their life looks and feels. We show them by example that they can change; they can improve and when they do everything else improves.

As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our children is being someone they can learn from and be inspired by. We can bequeath them power over self.

Taking an inventory of our way of being is useful because it will help us improve ourselves. As we make changes, we teach our children that change is possible and necessary. We pass along life skills that make for a more pleasant and successful life.

Ask the important question – What do I want to bequeath to my children?

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Why You Should STOP Comparing

As a parent or grandparent do you ever feel you don’t measure up? I think we all have those feelings. Here are four examples that will help you STOP playing the comparing game, which isn’t fun, and which no one ever wins.

Story One

Don and I have 14 grandchildren and one on the way. We love these kids. But Don and I grandparent differently. He does a lot of snuggling. He is round and soft, and the kids come and climb on his knee and lean against his ample chest. He chats quietly with them. They tell him fantastic tales and share their thoughts. He has a candy jar which he keeps on the dresser in the bedroom. He fills it with sundry candies and makes sure it doesn’t run out. He also has an air gun and has taught the kids how to shoot. They loved that activity.

I don’t cuddle although I do hug. If I sat down, I might cuddle but I’m never sitting. I’m bustling about all the time. The kids come to me when they need anything. They know that whatever they need I will have, batteries, food coloring, pencils and paper, cornstarch, a box of mac and cheese. I rarely disappoint. One day Mary said to me, “You are the best and most prepared grandma I ever had.”

I’m a bit stern but I still get hugs and kisses. Ben reminds me that he has a billion and I can have one any time I want. I can be counted on to take them to their friends and pick them up, to wash a football jersey or send regular letters with gum inside.

When we went to Seattle to see out newest grandchild Tessa jumped up and down and said, “I couldn’t wait for grandpa to get here because I want to snuggle.”  While we were there, I helped the kids pick blackberries and make tarts. We walked to the corner book cupboard, got books, and then I read to them. I held Gus a ton and changed diapers. I helped Tessa and Elliott and their friends make crafts.

I used to worry because Don snuggled, while I did stuff. I worried that I wasn’t as good a grandparent. Then I remembered my grandparents. They were so different, and I loved them all. I never compared what they brought into my life. I just loved them all and accepted what they gave.

Story Two

Don and I don’t do big presents. We decided a few decades ago as a family that we didn’t want to spend lots of money on gifts and so we don’t. When our grandkids have a birthday, they get a few dollars and a stick of gum. I am known as the gum grandma. There is a stick of gum in every card and letter.

My daughter Marie’s children have grandparents that send big gifts. I worried that the grands would feel we were chintzy because of our choices concerning gift giving. I asked her about it, and she responded with vigor. “Oh mom, they LOVE getting your gifts. They love the gum. They love you and dad.”

Story Three

The four grandchildren I live with have a woman who we all consider grandma. She isn’t related by blood, but they adore her, and she adores them. She takes them to the planetarium, the zoo, the fair, and other wonderful places. On their birthdays the birthday child gets to spend the night at her home. It’s the highlight of their year.

I LOVE Cindy for her good heart, her friendship and because she loves my daughter’s family so much. But I have had to settle myself because what we each bring to the grandparent pool is so different. Our grands sleep on our living room floor many weekends. They love it but it isn’t the highlight of their year. It’s part of their daily life. We help our grands get to their friends’ homes, get homework done, supply them with stuff they need, we are there. I worried that it couldn’t compare to the planetarium and the zoo. However, when we are gone for a week or two they miss us and can’t wait for us to get back.

Story Four

This last June when my youngest daughter’s son turned four, I wanted to get him a book. He LOVES being read to and it fits my gift-giving budget. I found a board book about dinosaurs, currently his favorite animal. Even though it was a bit young for him each page made the sound of the dinosaur. I knew he would like it and he did.

His other grandparents bought him three rockets that shot high into the sky. His grandpa is a pilot. Man, how do you compare a board book to three rockets? Well, you don’t, and Elliott didn’t. He loved the book. He loved the rockets.

What’s the Point!

We need to stop comparing ourselves to others whether parenting or grandparenting. We need to stop measuring our efforts against someone else’s. Children are amazing. They take what is offered and they hold it dear. They love their parents just as they are. They love their grandparents just as they are.
Each adult in a child’s life brings something different. It’s a blessed child that has many loving adults in their life. Kids embrace them all and accept what they give.

Do your best. Bring what you can. Keep adding to your skills and it will be enough.

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Christmas Dresses – A True Story

A true short story, written by Mary Ann Johnson years ago when her children were young and she was remembering

Christmases past.

NaVon, my mother, just 23 years old.

The heater made a steady hum as it singed the small bits of pine I had placed on top. I’d never seen one like it until we moved into the new house. It was brown, shiny, and huge. It wasn’t as homey as Grandma’s Ben Franklin, but it was warm and didn’t create clinkers, for which I was grateful. The pine was mother’s idea. She liked the smell the needles gave off as they slowly turned brown.

Mary Ann Johnson, age five. Pay attention to the buttons!

I was five years old and Idaho Falls was cold and windy. Inside it was warm and cozy. There were six of us and the house was small. I saw it years later and small was a generous word for it. At the time it seemed perfect.

Christmas was coming and as it always did during that season, the sewing machine was humming away. Pieces of black velvet and red taffeta littered the floor. I noticed the buttons first; the most beautiful buttons in the world, shiny white with rhinestone centers. Those buttons were a treasure sewn on a cardboard square. I would have paid at least a quarter for them, a vast sum hidden away in my bank.

But the buttons weren’t for sale. They were going onto elegant dresses that my sisters and I watched take shape until I could hold back my curiosity no longer. “Mom, are the dresses for us? Can we wear them?” “No”, she replied. Who else would they be for?

Our father-made cupboard.

With patience, she explained that there was a family who needed help making Christmas special. We had so much she said. She ticked our blessings off on her fingers. I remember the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had never had a beautiful dress like that, never a dress with buttons that shone like stars.

As the days passed, the emptiness in my stomach was being filled, for as my mother sewed, she poured into me a feeling of gratitude for blessings received and a spirit of giving. She made me a co-conspirator. I cared for the baby, played quietly and picked up those lovely scraps so she could continue to sew.

Soon the dresses were finished and gone. The gifts of love had been delivered. Then my mother began pouring charity into the empty place that the actual departure of the dresses left. “Now girls, when we go to church, you’ll see those dresses on three other little girls. Don’t say a word. We want them to feel happy and proud. This is our special Christmas secret. Remember that it’s important for people to have dignity and be happy.”

We three, Cindy, Shirley and I turned our young faces to her and beamed. We trusted the words of our mother. We knew we could keep the secret. I had a feeling of joy in my stomach. Emptiness no longer lingered there.

Our father-made rocking horse.

Christmas night was torture. Every child has felt the pangs of anxiety; will the doll be there, the train, the blocks? Every child has felt the excitement; how can I wait; how can I sleep? Sleep stayed away for a long time.

It was still dark when we raced to mom and dad’s room. They arose slowly – too slowly! finding slippers and waking the baby. Then there was the interminable wait as dad lit the tree and turned up the heat. Finally, we were free to run pell-mell into an ecstasy that would last all day.

What a wonderful Christmas!

 

What? I stopped short. There they were those buttons attached to a black velvet and red taffeta dress. What a surprise and joy.

As I sailed into church later that day, I was wearing a prized gift but the most precious Christmas gift I received that season was carried in my heart; gratitude for what I had, the love of sharing and charity for others. This gift, given to me by my mother so many Christmases ago has made all the difference in the quality of my life. Thanks, mom!!

Also, a thank you to my dad who is now gone. He made wonderful toys with his own two hands. We had them for many, many, years and they delighted all nine of us children.

Merry Christmas.

A Gift for You – The Week Before Christmas Packet

Christmas is just around the corner.

It’s a joyous holiday celebrated around the world by both Christians and non-Christians. It’s a time to celebrate family, friendships and for Christians, Christ. It’s filled with parties, gift-giving, food, and fun. BUT it can be exhausting!

If you’re like me, you’ve had Christmases that when all was said and done, felt disappointing. Oh, the gifts were good, and you got everything on your to-do list done but something was missing. After a few decades of thinking about that after-Christmas feeling, I know what it is for me. I didn’t spend enough downtime with my family, I failed to connect heart to heart and laugh to laugh. I was just too busy.

When I pinned this down for myself, I thought, “I bet I’m not the only person out there who feels this way.” So, I compiled a packet of simple, inexpensive and family-centered activities to help myself and others spend some quality time together at Christmas. I combed the Internet and gathered information and links so you wouldn’t have to. You can print the PDF HERE.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend five, six or even seven quiet evenings with just you and your family celebrating this remarkably joyous season? I’m with you, it would. We can make that happen by cleaning out our calendar and making a commitment to do it.

When I first put this together I tried it out. I had a few of my grands over and we did two of the activities. We made donut snowmen and donut reindeer. We learned that frosting and candies do not stick on powdered donuts very easily! We learned that if you don’t keep an eye on them, the noses will disappear from the snowmen’s faces. (Jack was that you?)

We learned that working on the floor is perfect, as the mess is right where you can sit in it easily! We learned that cutting pretzels for antlers is not as easy as it looks and if you don’t do it right you have ears. Reindeer look very funny with ear-shaped antlers. We learned that we love working together and that the whole project only took about 20 minutes. Then we ate!

Here’s to spending time as a family, calming the craziness, celebrating together and gearing up for a fabulous 2020. You can print the PDF HERE.

With holiday wishes for joy,
Mary Ann Johnson

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