May 10, 2013

Carmela, a Mother’s Day Remembrance



Her name was Carmela, a lyrical name meaning “garden or orchard.” Carmela with one “l” she’d always say. My mother really disliked having her name misspelled. Understandable, especially considering that her vibrancy as an individual was so often dismissed throughout her life, because when you suffer from mental illness, that one fact is often the primary thing, sometimes the only thing, people remember about you. And she was so much more than the madness inside her mind that she could not escape.

My mother was also called Millie, a nickname given to her by her Sicilian mother. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was in the middle mix of ten children and a first-generation Italian American. Her parents, Nicholas and Rosa, had immigrated to America from Palermo, Sicily. When she was a young girl, her parents moved from New York to New Jersey where her father opened a barber shop.

 Memories of my mother, Carmela, are like opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas. That’s because I never knew my mother in the way one would normally know a mother. I never knew my mother when she wasn’t mentally ill. Since I am the first-born of six children, none of Carmela’s children really knew her as a mother in the loving way one ought to know a mother. I also cannot sugarcoat the fact that her mental illness made huge chunks of our childhood nearly unbearable. My mother had visions of angels and demons, and at any moment she could go into a fit of uncontrolled rage trying to knock the demons out of us. Because of her illness, my siblings and I spent time in an orphanage (which was no better) and foster care. But I don’t want to dwell on that, except to say what happened in my childhood made me a stronger individual and more compassionate toward others, having been exposed to children from varying cultures and difficult circumstances at an early age. No matter how hard it rains, the sun will shine again.

On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to focus on who Carmela was beyond the darkness of severe bipolar disorder. Although my mother had limited education (her Old World Italian parents did not believe in education for their daughters, only marriage), she had much talent. She was a budding writer, and after she died, I found part of a short story she had written when she was young. She read the dictionary to improve her vocabulary and enjoyed learning new words. Mom liked reciting quotes, especially the Abe Lincoln quote: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” I believe she felt that quote was applicable to her own life.

Carmela had a beautiful soprano singing voice. During World War II, before she married, she sang at local USO shows entertaining troops from the nearby Army base. Her jet black hair was styled in pretty waves; she sometimes wore a flower in her hair. When we were children, she sang along to the radio all the time. That is one of my best memories of my mother, when she was singing. At those moments, she seemed unencumbered and she sang with passion. Her favorite musical artists were The McGuire Sisters, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s version of “My Way” was her favorite song.

I am not in the medical profession, but I believe that music therapy could have been a more effective treatment for her illness than all the electro-shock therapies (now referred to as electro-convulsive therapy), so heavily advocated by her doctors and which produced no beneficial results, not once. In fact, those therapies caused her to forget entire parts of her children’s childhood, the end result being that when her children were taken away, my mother cut-out pictures of children from magazines and framed them as if they were her own, as if creating a new family.

At a birthday party for Mom with my brother, George, and sister, Rose.

Toward the end of her life, my mother, Carmela, became nearly comatose after so many years of failed ECT therapies and medications. She was locked in her own world with images no one could envision and she barely smiled anymore. Yet, she was once a vibrant woman with the potential to be so much more than the darkness that stole her mind.

In my dreams since her death, Mom is young, happy, without any signs of mental illness; I am a young girl again playing with my siblings, and Mom is smiling and playing with us, something she never did. Yes, I am seeing her in my dreams the way I would have liked to have seen her in life. I am seeing the mother I never had. That is the magic of dreams; they are an alternate reality of hope. Hope and dreams are survival skills.  

Carmela passed away in 2002 and was buried alongside my dear father, who had preceded her in death by twenty-two years, 1980. Mom loved the colors rose and pink, so we chose a rose-tinted marble headstone for my parents’ grave and had their wedding photo permanently encased in an oval on the stone. She would have liked that. At the bottom of the stone I had inscribed the quote: “Hope sees what is not, but yet will be.”


It is my hope that Carmela’s spirit, my mother’s spirit, free from the physical constraints of madness, can now embrace a life full of joy in whatever way that life continues. I know she will be singing…singing with passion.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Playing Sinatra for you...



©2013 JerseyLils2Cents, all text and photos.

46 comments:

  1. What an honest and beautiful post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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    1. Kevin, thank you, you are very kind!

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  2. Lovely post Lil, very heartfelt.

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    1. Thanks, Dale! I really appreciate that so much.

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  3. "Memories of my mother, Carmela, are like opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas." This memoir of your mother is so poignant, Madilyn. It's ironic to think how Carmela's illness robbed you, your siblings, and your father of pleasant family memories while the ECT treatments only made her forgetful without any noticeable improvement. You've got such a beautiful spirit, and it sounds as if that's what pulled you through those years of turmoil. Your courage reminds me of that hymn, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." Carmela's tragic predicament makes me think of that Pink Floyd song, "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond." I wonder, had Carmela been born 30 years later, if her love of singing, her inquisitive nature, and her intelligence would have been nurtured, and if so, whether she would have become ill. Based on her fondness for Lincoln's quote, it sounds as if she had some insight into her madness. Anyway, I found what you wrote incredibly moving.

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    1. Thanks so much, Kris! Yes, my mother’s severe illness sadly robbed my entire family of pleasant memories we could have had. I think what pulled me through was having a resilient spirit. If Carmela had been born 30 years later when better treatments were available (ECT back then was totally useless for her, in fact made things worse, yet the drs kept doing it), I believe her illness could have been managed and she’d have had the chance to develop her talents. That was the family life that might have been.

      With each child, my mother’s condition became progressively worse and my sisters and I have wondered if mom also suffered from post-partum depression, a condition not widely known back then.

      How perceptive of you to think of Pink Floyd’s song in relation to my mother’s predicament. I had never thought of that, thank you! I love "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond." Just listened to it again and I can definitely see the correlation. I always love your insights!

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  4. What a beautiful post. What a beautiful woman. Could you maybe, at some point, write a post about your father? How he coped, how he loved? I'd like to know more about how you navigated such a rough childhood, and the strength you gained.

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    1. Therese, thank you! I will be writing a Father’s Day post in June, and I appreciate that you are asking about my father too. I don’t write many such personal posts because it’s not easy going back to that time, but doing so every now and then is cathartic. I am so glad you stopped by again!

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  5. My heart breaks for the childhood you should have had, and didn't. May you be deeply, deeply blessed by this beautiful compassionate grace you are able to extend to the mother whose beauty fell though the cracks of a world unable to allow it to bloom, to the mother whose inability to care for you caused so much pain. This is an incredibly passionate, and unusual post for the holiday ahead, Madilyn! I enjoyed it very much.

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    1. Melody, you have always been so kind in your comments about my childhood and I sincerely appreciate it. Yes, my mother’s ”beauty fell through the cracks of a world unable to allow it to bloom,” thank you, that is so beautifully phrased!

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  6. Carmela, a beautiful name and a beautiful woman. Such a tragic life. I so agree with you that singing would've been the better therapy, something she loved, that could've lifted her spirits. You write so beautifully, Madilyn, and with such truth and pathos. I think of you often, and feel grateful that there are sweet souls like you in the world.

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    1. Marty, thank you so much! Carmela is a beautiful name and I wish I had better photos to show how beautiful she really was, especially when she was young. Yes, singing, something she loved, lifted her spirits. Music therapy, rather than the cruel ECT being used back then, could have been the very treatment that reached her when nothing else would. It is tragic that her doctors could not think outside the box and try different therapies. I really appreciate your thoughtful words!

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  7. I could not read all the way smoothly because my tears kept blurring the texts. It reminds me Hemingway's iceberg theory - I could feel the heaviness of that eight ninth of "iceberg" underneath water, and this one ninth above water is absolutely brilliant!

    I can only imagine how hard your childhood was, especially your are the oldest. How you turned out so loving and compassionate is something I can only admire.

    My favorite line: "Memories of my mother, Carmela, are like opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas." in contrast with this one: "In my dreams since her death, Mom is young, happy, without any signs of mental illness;..."

    I love how you picked up the memory of her singing songs along the radio, how “she seemed unencumbered and sang with passion.” She must be so beautiful in those moments.

    May your beautiful mother sing forever in Heaven and be proud of her beautiful children.

    Thanks Madilyn for sharing such a deep and moving memory.

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    1. Yun Yi, thank you! What an interesting perception to compare this text to Hemingway’s iceberg theory which was so marvelously displayed in “The Sun Also Rises.” I sincerely appreciate that. In writing this piece I tried to capture the essence of my mother beyond the illness that defined so much of her life. I am so pleased that came through.

      My mother’s singing was the best memory I have of her. I believe her singing and love for music were at her core personality, and that part could shine despite all the darkness. Thank you so much!

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  8. A poignant and heart-wrenching, yet a melodious memoir. It is going to difficult for me to forget the 'opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas' and the stubborn belief, “Hope sees what is not, but yet will be.”

    Trust me, I could hear Carmela singing along with her children when I played Frank Sinatra.

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    1. Uma, thank you for such beautiful words! I am especially pleased that you referred to my post as “a melodious memoir.” Given my mother’s love for singing and music, I consider that a wonderful compliment. Thank you for mentioning the lines you enjoyed.

      The quote about hope is one that I had inscribed on her gravestone. A part of me always clings to a stubborn belief in hope and dreams. I love that you could envision Carmela singing along with her children, and delighted that you played Frank Sinatra!

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  9. Yes Madilyn, once again you produce one of the most personal and readable and interesting blogs there is. Unfortunately, bipolar disorders were not as well understood a generation ago and ECT was damaging in a physical sense, although at the time it was the only thing that seemed to work on people with profound depression. But you have the great capacity to see through this and find the positives that can be drawn. Your mother lives on through you and I'm sure she is smiling in approval. I'm equally sure we all join with you in celebrating her life.

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    1. Thank you, Neil, I always appreciate your wonderful comments! With your professional background, you have a keen understanding of bipolar disorder. Yes, this disorder was not understood well at all back when my mother was being treated. The ECT was so damaging for her. My mother was, in fact, more manic than depressive, and ECT actually caused her to become more depressed and forget whole sections of her children’s childhood. I truly believe music therapy could have been a viable alternative approach to healing for her but her doctors never considered it.

      I hope my mother is smiling in approval of what I’ve written and what a lovely thought, thank you so much! (Btw, thinking about your book and the Life Cycles principles, my mother met my father at age 24, a significant life cycle year for her, very interesting how that works.)

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  10. Brilliant writing. Thank you for a beautiful Mother's Day tribute. The way you're seeing Carmela in your dreams IS the way she is living now JerseyLil. She wants you to know that. Reminds me of the tribute to your dad. I'm so sorry for the painful memories and admire you can still see sunshine.

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    1. Thanks, Donna! That the Carmela I see in my dreams, free from illness and happy, is the way she is living now is such a beautiful thought, thank you for that! Looking for the sunshine (even drawing lots of pictures of bright yellow-orange suns when I was a child) is how I believe I made it through.

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    1. Thank you! I resemble both of my parents actually. I wish I had inherited my mother’s pretty wavy hair. My hair is the English/Irish stick-straight hair from my father’s side loll!

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  12. What a stunning post JL. A piece of exceptional beauty.
    `...opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas...'
    I can certainly relate to that line, & yes...
    your compassion shines through and through.
    A lovely piece, written with a warm & generous heart.
    Cheers, ic

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    1. Ian, thank you! How wonderful to have my post referred to as “a piece of exceptional beauty.” I sincerely appreciate that. Delighted that you liked my line about memories of my mother being like “opaque washes of indigo on an unfinished canvas.” I was struggling for a way to describe my memories when that line just came to me and seemed to fit perfectly. Very interesting that you can relate to that line as well; I believe I see a glimpse of that in your writings. Cheers to you, too!

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  13. Jersey, what a beautiful tribute to Carmela, your mother. It brought tears to my eyes. (I also have Italian roots on my father's side, by the way, and my great-grandmother was called Rosa). What an amazing woman Carmela was. I think you are such a special human being and I believe your sensitivity and your compassion have to do with Carmela's legacy. I am proud of being your friend. Happy Mother's Day. Carmela is and will always be alive in your heart and in your words.

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    1. Thank you, Julia, I sincerely appreciate your words! How interesting that you have Italian roots too, and that your great-grandmother’s name was Rosa. My middle name is Rose and my sister’s name is Rose. Thank you for saying Carmela was an amazing woman. I can only imagine how much more amazing she would have been if she could have lived her life free from madness. I am proud to be your friend as well, thank you for that!

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  14. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.. My father's family is also from Palermo - small world.. - Carmela is beautiful and I know that she was singing right along with Mr. Sinatra and I know that she is free and all that was once dark in her mind is now light. God bless you Lil. You are an amazing woman yourself. Hugs..

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    1. Mimi, thank you! I remember that your father’s family is also from Palermo, small world, indeed. It is a beautiful thought that my mother is now free from the darkness, and singing happily along with Sinatra. I like that a lot! Hugs to you, too!

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  15. Go check this out. You are a recipient of these no-strings-attached awards

    http://themotherofnine9.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/blog-awards-straight-from-the-heart/

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  16. OH so sad, soo sad. But at the same time this tribute to her is so beautiful and I am sure she is proud of you and happy that you chose to remember her the way she was before the sickness. Regards ...

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    1. Thanks, unikorna, I appreciate that very much. I am glad you stopped by my blog.

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  17. It's so sad that your mother suffered mental illness and you was raised in that environment, so didn't have a happier childhood. It's tough when children have to fend for themselves at such a young age, and being taken out of the home must have been upsetting for you all.
    I don't know much about this ECT treatment but I'm wondering if this made her worse, because afterwards she was also losing her memory in certain areas. Having mental illness issues, ECT treatments, confusion and/or memory loss must not have been an easy burden to bear for your mother. It's just so sad for everyone involved.

    You truly have come out of this stronger JerseyLil, and it seems you have followed in her footsteps in the area of writing too. But can you sing as good as she did?
    Sometimes we can just take the good things out of a bad situation and dream of what could have been. A very well written post JerseyLil, very touching.

    I loved the marble headstone with your mum and dads wedding photo on it. They both look so young, beautiful and happy.

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    1. Rum-Punch Drunk, thank you so much! I know you truly understand a difficult childhood. Yes, that kind of childhood is tough especially on young children. I became stronger emotionally but I am the oldest, some of my younger siblings sadly did not fare as well. Being taken from the home by social services and separated from my siblings was the most difficult and painful part. All we had was each other and then that was taken away.

      I positively believe that the ECT treatments (electro-shock therapy) did more harm than good for my mother’s mental illness. Even though they were not effective and in my mother’s case caused confusion and memory loss, doctors kept using ECT to treat her several times over the years. I cannot help but think some of it may have been done for the insurance payouts to doctors and hospitals. It was very traumatic for her to have it done and very hard on the whole family.

      Yes, I do believe I caught the writing bug from my mother (along with two of my sisters), and my mother's love for singing, but not her singing talent. I can carry a tune well enough to get by, but my sister, Rose, is the one who inherited that gene and sings beautifully. Thank you about the marble headstone with the encased wedding photo. I wanted to give my mother the dignity and respect in death that she did not get in life. I truly value your kind words.

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  18. What a lovely name for a beautiful woman. So sad she could not live her potential. So sad you and your brothers and sisters had to suffer with her outbreaks. So unfair, it seems. Your story touched me in many ways.

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    1. Thank you, Angelika! Carmela is a beautiful name, isn’t it? It has a very lyrical quality when you say it out loud. Yes, it is so sad my mother could not live her potential, and that my siblings and I could not grow up together as a family. It was all very sad for my father as well. I will be doing a Father’s Day post about him in June (our Father’s Day here). I am very moved that my post touched you and very much appreciate your comment.

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  19. I am so torn up over this post. I am bipolar and my mom was a forensic psych nurse for a time who knows the damage that was caused ECT back then.

    I can't imagine what you went through with your mom like that - and it does sound SO severe. I can only imagine the pain and confusion that went through your mind as a child - knowing she was sick, but still suffering because of it.

    My husband's great uncle was bipolar and was a great talent on the piano. When he was insitutionalized, his family said that jazz or classical on cds or him paying the piano did more for his recovery than anything else. He passed long before I came into the family, but from what I now, ECT took his soul as well.

    I can never say I know what you went through. I did have a dad with several mental illnesses and addiction problems which were either triggered or magnified by him being a Marine in VietNam with severe post traumatic stress disorder. So, though I don't know what it's like with a mother with mental issues, I certainly know how it is when a father has them.

    i'm so sorry, but so admire you for being where you are today - a talented writer and a beautiful soul.

    I love the beautiful photos you've posted of your mother.

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    1. Charlene, my heart goes out to you, and I sincerely thank you for your courage in openly discussing that you are bipolar. I appreciate your comments here so much! Part of what made it so difficult for my mother to recover was that she was unable, back in those days, to openly admit she was mentally ill. Also, the lack of support she received from her own family (although my father always supported her) did not help. Her Old-World Sicilian parents shunned her as soon as she was diagnosed and hospitalized. They felt it was an evil-eye curse and wanted nothing further to do with her or with us, so they rejected their own daughter and grandchildren. My mother’s siblings supported their parents and rejected my mother and rejected us as well. That’s why, even though there was a large Italian family nearby, my siblings and I were sent to an orphanage and foster care when my mother was hospitalized. (Our grandparents on my father’s side had died long before I was born. There were no relatives left on his side to take us in.)

      ECT was so harmful especially back when my mother was being treated, and thank you for letting me know that your mom, a forensic psych nurse, verifies this. Yes, my mother’s condition was severe; she was bipolar with psychotic tendencies, that’s how doctors phrased it.

      Just like with my mom, your husband’s bipolar great uncle, the talented pianist, was helped by listening to music much more than anything else. Very sad that ECT then took his soul, just like it took my mother’s soul. It is a cruel treatment.

      I am so sorry you had to endure a childhood with a severely mentally ill father with addition problems. Even though our childhoods were different, in so many respects we have known similar emotional pain. I don’t doubt your father returned from Vietnam with severe PTSD and that would have caused or magnified mental illness. I know about Vietnam, it was my era when I was in college. Many friends returned with severe PTSD (if they returned at all) and that caused lifelong addiction problems. I can’t imagine what it was like being a child living through that turmoil.

      Charlene, you are a beautiful woman with amazing courage and resilience. And a great chef too, I love your blog. Thank you for opening up to me. I am truly very moved by your comments.

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    2. Jersey, you are beautiful and inspiring. You are a true epicurean in life - sampling anything tasty the buffet of life has to offer. I love that you were in a film - what an experience!

      Thank you so much for your empathy. I just wanted to share so that you know, all though as you said our experiences were a bit different, but I can't and can't imagine your pain growing up. It is just heartbraking that your family 'disowned' your mom. And, yes, the stigma was worse then as it is now. They may have thought she was possessed? Which is what my strict Catholic Hungarian grandparents thought about 'crazy' folks. Thank goodness I was little when they were alive, they may have called an exorcist on me, lol.

      It is so heartbreaking that you had to grow up in orphanages and with foster care, when there was a wealth of family who refused to help.

      it wasn't as severe in my case, but after my dad left, his family abandoned us as well. Boy, that can really tear a kid up - I can't imagine how you must felt!!!!!

      However, you are definitley a strong survivor. I wouldn't be reading your wonderful writing if you weren't.

      I fear and pray for vets and their families. If the Nam vets suffered so much after one tour, how well are today's vets going to recover with 3 or 4 tours of duty?


      Here's a HUGE hug to you!!!

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    3. Charlene, thank you for calling me a “true epicurean in life,” I like that. Yes, it was heartbreaking the way my mother’s family shunned her, and her children, because of her mental illness. The stigma was worse back then. You may be right, perhaps they thought she was possessed. My grandparents were Catholic too. It’s likely that your Hungarian grandparents and my Italian grandparents thought alike in that regard. I am sorry to hear your father’s family abandoned you after he left, that’s terrible, and I understand. Huge hug to you, too!!

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  20. lost my blog (long story) and had to start a new one. Come visit me at http://my2ndcup.blogspot.com/ I have missed all my blogging buddies.

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    1. So sorry to hear that happened! I will check out your new blog, thanks.

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  21. The wedding photo is so beautiful and they looks so happy.

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    1. Thanks so much, Angelika! Yes, it was a hopeful time for my parents before everything else involved with life set in. I wanted that photo of love and hope to be a permanent marker on their headstone. Our Father's Day in the U.S. is coming up soon and I am preparing a post about my late dad. Hope you'll stop by again.

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