Tag Archives: Old photographs

The End of a Special Time

My daughter leaves for her home today. She’s been with me for the past few months because she was performing in a show at a regional theatre here.

I don’t want her to leave. She’s a calm, generous spirit, and it’s been such a pleasure to spend time with her. We’ve done things I would never have done if she wasn’t with me.

We cleaned some dandelion greens . . .

and made a tart.

She scanned old family photos for me.

Ten years ago her paternal grandmother passed away on my daughter’s 16th birthday. As we went through a few of Grammy’s belongings, my daughter selected a vintage 1960s Le Monde bracelet watch to remember her by.

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And I went to see my daughter’s show. A lot.

This was a little souvenir. Can you tell what show she was in?

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Filed under Memoir, Nonfiction

For the Birds

A year ago, I posted this piece about the place of birds in my life. I wonder if you have threads like this that run through your life.

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.”  My breath billowed up the sheet.

Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover.  That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name.  My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.”  On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall.  Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages.  An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds.  I paid $9.99 for the lovers.

When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard.  Songbirds flew after us into the dark.  That’s the way I remember it.

I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot

Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated.  I still can’t get rid of it.  The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless.  It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird.  Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles.  But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.

When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind.  Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then.  Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV.  I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.

Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them.  “It’s been done to death,” he said.  I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman.  Or maybe he said before Whitman.  I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird.  That’s what you call a writing constraint.

We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers.  The latter we knew would eventually move out.  My husband called in the pest control people for the former.  The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business.  That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him.  He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves.  We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them.  One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm.  The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink.  We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.

My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed.  I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing.  She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.

Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter.  We only had a couple of dogs left.  The birds had departed long before for their heaven.  Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote.  They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey.  So no more birds for our family.

This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors.  I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans.  We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places.  But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing.  My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.

A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on.  Two adult pigeons watch from the roof.  I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady.  She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor.  She says, “I’ve never seen this before.  It’s not a broken wing.  He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.”  She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides.  “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.”  I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.

In the summer, I bring her another pigeon.  This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time.  She tries, but can’t save this one.  “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.”  She wants my permission to do an autopsy.  That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons.  When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.

My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year.  I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure.  “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said.  “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”

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In June, I wrote about the pigeon lady in another post. Birds and trees are two of my writing obsessions. When a motif turns up repeatedly on this blog, I can tell it’s another obsession ;). What are your obsessions . . . um, motifs?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

The Space Race and Me

Today’s research turned out to be particularly helpful for my book.

Reading about the space race is dull science unless you’re particularly interested in military history. But I didn’t feel that it was boring when I was a kid.

Using the Nova (PBS) space race time line available online, I thought I would see how my memories fit into the historical and political context.

My first memory was of a model rocket ship my dad “helped me” put together.  We still lived on Trimble and it was before the bomb shelter, so it had to be 1961 or before.  I was very young and the model was far too advanced for me.  I wasn’t old enough to go to a school with a “rocket club,” where kids met and compared rocket models.

According to Nova, the space race began the month of my birth, July 1955.  After WWII, the US and USSR “entered into the Cold War game of spy-versus-spy that ultimately led to the space race.”  Eisenhower proposed an “Open Skies” policy so that “either nation would be allowed to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the other.”  The USSR rejected the idea, and both countries began work on satellites to gather intelligence.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched their satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit.  A month later they sent a dog into orbit in Sputnik 2.  On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1 and in July 1958, Eisenhower announced that NASA would be formed with the mission of exploring space.

By 1959 both countries had begun the process of missions to the moon.  Pioneer (US) and Luna (USSR) were spacecrafts designed to take us to the moon.  In 1960, the United States and Soviet Union continued to work on rocket and satellite technology.

These unmanned rocket ships captured the imagination of Americans.  Being satisfied with this less personal involvement in space was soon to change.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets succeeded in sending a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit.  The Soviets had put the first man into space and beaten the Americans once again.

Before our spare bedroom was turned into a nursery for my brother, I remember wearing a space man helmet in that room while my mother wrote letters.  The costume had tin foil on it somewhere, but my memory exists only as an impressionistic image.

Dell comics started the series Space Man in 1961.  The comics were published for over ten years.  They featured, as did many books and toys of the era, astronauts in “space suits.”

Notice the back of this comic  is an ad for a Daisy  air gun (see previous post about cowboys and guns).

Notice the back of this comic is an ad for a Daisy air gun (see previous post about cowboys and guns).

In October 1962, American reconnaissance planes discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites being constructed in Cuba.  This was only 90 miles from the United States.  The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted two weeks.  The U.S. also had bases at the Turkish-Soviet border.  People were very shaken up because they believed that a nuclear war had been narrowly averted.  Both countries removed their weapons, but it drove their efforts to compete more deeply underground and more deeply into the fabric of the culture at the time.

I didn’t have a clue this was going on, although not too long after the Cuban Missile Crisis we started getting Spanish teachers in the public schools, and the teachers were always Cuban.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory plans were announced at the end of 1963.  The secret mission of the lab was for the astronauts to take more detailed photos of the Soviets and their allies.

In March 1964 we moved and I no longer slept over the bomb shelter.  My parents transferred me to a 3rd grade classroom in a new school that month.

The bulletin board was decked out for a reading competition which featured planets and stars.  I wrote a report about all nine planets—Mercury to Pluto.  At my school science fair, in 4th grade, at least half the exhibits were related to “outer space.”

In my 4th grade classroom (1964-65) we watched documentaries about the space race.  One that particularly disturbed me was seeing a chimpanzee being put into the small spaceship, where I knew he would be blasted into space and imagined he would eternally die, as if his death would be an ongoing tragedy.

I looked for the video online—or at least a reasonable facsimile, but haven’t been able to find one yet.  I did discover that Ham, the first chimp shot into space, survived and lived another 17 years.

Nevertheless, other non-human primates were not so lucky.

After that, a new vista of space opened up for me and many other American children.  The TV show Lost in Space aired on September 15, 1965 and lasted until March 6, 1968.  A while back somebody posted a photo from this show on Facebook, and many people confessed to having been very absorbed by this show.  I remember setting up chairs in my basement and pretending it was the “chariot” which rolls over the rocky terrains of unknown planets.

Instead of poor innocent chimps or anonymous astronauts being shot into space, here was an American family who were surviving in the hostile and exciting environments of outer space. I never knew that the costumes worn by the family were such brilliant colors as I watched the show on our black and white Zenith TV (with herringbone patterns and general fuzz overlaying the images).

I was such a fan I even got Angela Cartwright’s autographed photo.

Close on the heels of Lost in Space, Star Trek aired on September 8, 1966.  The difference in quality of the two shows was astronomically 😉 different.  The first was a kitschy show for children.  The second was far superior in the way it was imagined and the appeal was broader.  Interestingly, though, it was sort of a flop at the beginning, as if it were ahead of its time.  By the time I started to watch it I was ready for this show in addition to my diet of spy shows (especially those from U.N.C.LE.).

My fickle heart switched from Lost in Space to Star Trek when I started junior high in 7th grade.  That would have been the fall of 1967.  So after only one year my crush on the first show was supplanted by my crush on the new show.

After watching Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and the rest  handle the denizens of outer space, what happened in 1969 wasn’t a big surprise.

As the Nova timeline indicates, “to many, the space race ended when Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin set foot on the moon.”  I didn’t need a timeline to tell me when this occurred because they landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, my fourteenth birthday.  That was the summer before 9th grade.  I have a very short story of this birthday on the storytelling website Cowbird.

This story describes how we watched the ship land on the moon on my parents’ 9” Sony portable TV.  I was an awkward fourteen, my braces packed with corn which I’d just eaten off the cob.  I remember suddenly knowing I wasn’t a kid any more.

Imagine that: the space race began and ended with my childhood.  Or should I say that my childhood began and ended with the space race?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Research and prep for writing

What Were My People Like?

I put a page on here  (see tab at the top of this page) which links to my genealogy blog.  A year ago I barely knew what a blog was, and now I have three blogs (with ideas for more–slap me, please).   The third blog was actually the first one–it’s about adoption and I write it with my daughter.  I had so much fun, I decided to keep going.

Back to the genealogy blog.  Long before I had kids (both of them were adopted), I was interested in family history and genealogy.  For a while I worked on a master’s degree in history, specializing in just that subject.  That’s before I gained/lost my senses and switched over to creative writing and English.  So while genealogy is a strange subject for someone with kids and a brother who were adopted, it’s something I’ve long been interested in.  Because of my interest, family members have told me stories and given me memorabilia.  I feel a great responsibility for this trust.

If you’re also into this subject, or if you just want to see what kind of weird family created me ;), check out my mother’s Dutch ancestors at The Family Kalamazoo.

I keep the focus on the DeKorn and Zuidweg families of southwestern Michigan. On this site, I share old photographs (100 years old), many taken by family photographer Joseph DeKorn.

Flooding at the Water Works Bridge in Kalamazoo, March 26, 1904. That spring, the water got 6″ higher than the photo shows.


I also have many other old photos and artifacts from the family.

Years ago, my grandfather Adrian Zuidweg shared a portion of the collection with Western Michigan University‘s Archives and Regional History Collections. A larger portion is not at the archives, and my goal is to share the rest of the collection on this blog.

At the lake

At the lake

The lives of my family members revolved around their families, small businesses (such as retail and construction), and the many lakes of the Kalamazoo area.

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Filed under Memoir

Today’s reblog is about an influence on my life–and a prevailing metaphor.

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “

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Another Meaningful Moment

At the end of the week I travelled to Los Angeles to visit my daughter.  She had surgery on an ovary on Friday (all went well), and I stayed this weekend to take care of her.  My small stone for Friday is of a personal nature because it took place at the medical center.  But yesterday I shopped and cooked for her, and my small stone turned out to take place during the cooking.

She owns a cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis called Everyday Pasta.  I made Rotini with Salmon and Roasted Garlic for dinner.  I added steamed asparagus cut into two-inch pieces.  It didn’t last long and was the first real food my daughter could eat.

After dinner I made Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables (see photo above), and it was also a big hit.

Here is my small stone:

Inside the onion are circles inside circles.  Halving the zucchini, I notice the small seeds which lie dormant.  The mushroom caps plump like ovaries. Even the peas are small spheres into themselves.

After the penne dish, I made devilled eggs.

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Let’s Try a Month of Meaningful Moments

Have you heard of the Mindful Writing Challenge for January 2013?  I read about it on Writing into Radiance and loved the concept.  It’s about being mindful of the physical world.  To foster that appreciation, write one “small stone”–a very short prose or poetry piece–which responds to beauty one encounters that day.  Actually, it’s not just beauty–that’s my leap.  And my mistake.  Don’t look only for beauty.

Their short version is very simple:

1. Notice something properly every day during January.
2. Write it down.

The idea is to write one a day for the month of January.  It’s your choice how to share or collect your pieces–singly or in a group.

OK, I admit it:  I was still confused after I digested this idea.  What did small stones look like?  Loose pebbles?  A gravel pit?

From reading up on the notion still more, it seems that Haiku is fine, but so are a couple of descriptive lines which evoke the experience for readers.

I tried one on January 1:

Against the sky’s palm,

black sprigged ropes crisscrossed

until a boom ignited a thousand birds

scattering abroad, alone

OK, so it’s not a poem.  It’s not very good.  But it begins to capture the experience for me.  By focusing I can be “in the moment” with the birds.  If I wanted to begin a poem from this image, I’d have to figure out how to convey that empty-handed feeling after the birds are gone.  Then I risk going into the “one in the hand” cliché and that’s the end of the poem.

On January 2, I tried another:

The mountain splits the sunlight in half, and the oleander tree, its leaves glittering as though wet under bright rays, sidles up to the bare January tree which waits in shadow, dry and brittle.  The sun slips a degree, illuminating the green leaves which reflect onto the bare trunk of the tree next to it.  Now both trees shine.

I wasn’t sure what kind of tree that was, winter-naked as if it were Michigan here in Arizona.  It just looked like January.  I guess I can omit the word January.

The next day I felt frustrated and wanted to spend more time on my moment and less on figuring out what a small stone looks like.

Light tricks skewer the ground.  I’m not sure where to step along the wash, barricaded by shadow and scrub.  Stumbling on a half-buried boulder, I try to right myself, but there’s nothing to clutch and I fall.  As I haul myself up, I’m haunted by the weight of what isn’t there.

Lots of shadows and light and black in my early January stones.  I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, but I started having fun walking the wash for this last one, so I will keep trying until I get my gravel pit.

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A Christmas Photo: 1959

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In this photo, which was taken in my grandparents’ living room,  I am four (almost 4 1/2).  It is marked with the year 1958, but I believe it must be 1959 because a photo professionally printed with 1958 has my hair shorter.  Also, my darker-haired cousin in this photo is a sitting-up baby, and he was born in December 1958.  This goes to show that it’s important to be careful about assuming that notations on photos are correct, even if the handwriting looks old.

My pretty mother has her eyes closed from the big flash, and I am standing with an opened gift in my hands.  I look a bit overwhelmed from the excitement and the unwinding of anticipation.  My aunt is smiling at me and Grandpa looks at the photographer.  The little boys are my uncle’s two oldest children–the youngest had not yet been born and neither had my brother.  My aunt was still young and unmarried, a college student.

The photo details trigger memories.  Since Grandma watched me while my parents worked (Grandma and the Purple People Eaters), this living room was very familiar to me.  Note the television with family portraits on top.  That’s the TV I watched Grandma’s soap opera with her on week days.  A chair had been moved out to make room for the Christmas tree.  My aunt and I had helped trim it.  Tinsel strands had escaped from the tree and ground into Grandma’s hooked area rug.  I liked to pick them up individually and run my fingers together down the smooth surface.

I could smell dinner in the kitchen.  Ham and Grandma’s special roast beef.  If only I hadn’t eaten so many sugar cookie snowmen decorated with little silver ball bearings and sprinkles.  Grandma and I had made those two days before. She rolled the dough and I cut out the shapes.  When they came out of the oven, I ate all the misshapen pieces.

Without the photo I wouldn’t remember specifics.  I treasure the memories accessible through all my old photos and am grateful that I have them to look at whenever I wish.  I have deep sympathy for those who have lost their mementos in disasters like Hurricane Sandy.  My deepest sympathy and my prayers are with those who have lost their loved ones and only have the photos and memories left.

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If you wish to help the survivors of Sandy Hook, Newtown, this article lists some good ideas.

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Twig

When I was ten, my father planted a Purple Leaf Plum twig in our backyard on Crockett Street. The roots fit in a coffee can. This plum sprig and I were the same height.

At least once a year, for five years, he took a photo of me standing next to the tree. The tree grew much more rapidly than I did. In some photos the tree was leafless, like an upside down rake, in others, the tension in its burgundy leaves apparent, and in at least one, the tree was in full pinkish-white bloom, the only beauty in our backyard.

Next to it, I looked unkempt, my bangs far too long, my hair shiny with oil, and raggedy clothes picked out of my costume trunk. Underneath these superficialities, the face was too thin which made the eyes and nose and mouth look overlarge and vulnerable–the face of a young teen trying to decide in which direction to run.

The plum tree stood in the center of our backyard because it needed full sunlight. After a heavy rainstorm, the tree’s branches hung to the ground in despair from the beating. I lifted the branches up off the wet grass. Next day the branches were directed skyward again.

We moved away from Crockett Street the summer before I entered tenth grade. Since it was in the backyard, I never saw the tree again. It now belonged to someone else. They say plum trees only live a generation or so, but sometimes a new trunk grows up next to the original and takes over, keeps on living. I like to think that’s what happened with our plum tree.

I don’t have the photos of me standing by the tree–only the memory and this one picture of my mother sitting in a lawn chair in front of the tree.

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Kicked Outside

The other day one of my Facebook friends reposted a status: “We had social networking when I was a kid, too.  It was called ‘Outside.’”   Apparently, I wasn’t the only kid who got kicked outside by her mother.

It would start with me switching the channel when Captain Kangaroo was over.  I wanted to watch The Shari Lewis Show because I’d heard other kids talking about it.  But my mother would hear the ending credits and poke her head around the corner from the kitchen.  “Time to go outside.”

“I don’t wanna.  I’m watching TV.”  Shari sang while her faithful sidekick Lambchop was introduced.

My mother walked into the room and turned the dial on the TV.  “Out,” she said.

“Can I just go in my room and make paper dolls?  I won’t make a mess.”

“Absolutely not.  Outside.”  My mother guided me to the door with her hand pushing my bottom.

Michigan weather ran the gamut from sunny to stormy–veering more toward the stormy side–but unless an actual tornado warning had been issued, I had to spend my Saturdays outside our house.  Daddy usually drove his garbage truck on Saturdays, so I would have enjoyed playing in the house, without worrying about his quicksilver temper igniting.  My mother didn’t see it that way.

Almost every house on Trimble Street had one or more kids in it, so very often I’d find a friend not far from my front yard.  We’d play sandbox trucks or army generals.  We’d hammer caps on the driveway.  On our bikes we flew all the way down busy Gull Road or, when those weren’t operational, we walked a mile to the cemetery to lie on graves.  When the sidewalks were snow-covered or patched with rough ice, we trudged in our rubber galoshes, the sides unbuttoned and flapping against our calves as we chatted and munched candy we’d stored like acorns in our snowsuit pockets.

I used to tell my mother that she made me go outside more than the other kids.  My proof was that I didn’t know all the TV programs they did.  I’ve caught up with the shows over the years and they are still the same today that they were then.  Playing, though, has changed, and that I can’t make up.  I guess I ought to thank my mother for kicking me outside.

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Did you play outside when you were a kid?  Do you think you would be playing outside much if you were growing up today?

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