Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

259. London without Lily

In 1930s, 2010s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, Stories, travel, United States, women & gender on April 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

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Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Every time I return to the city of my birth, I prepare for a hectic and joyful flurry of visiting—my mother’s sister and brother, cousins (or as we say in India, cousin-sisters and brothers), their children and grandchildren, and old friends—friends of my parents from before my birth, their children, who go back with me to the beginning, and a small number of friends who have either migrated to Britain from the Indian Subcontinent or whom I have got to know over the years during one of my extended stays. I ache for London when I am away from it and certain places in it (Hampstead Heath, Kentish Town, Camden Town) have an almost magical resonance for me, but as I plan to return once again, this time after six long years, I am reminded that it is people, as always, who matter the most. This time though, it will be the people who have passed away during the intervening six years who are uppermost in my mind: for I will return to a landscape without them in it. This time, no one defines London more by her absence than my mother’s oldest and dearest friend Lily.

Over the years I have visited Lily at a succession of different houses, in Highgate, Haringey, Kentish Town—just a short walk from where Mum and she were born, in adjacent streets—and Regents Park. We have met for lunch or coffee in Hampstead, shopped for boots at Camden Lock (Lily had impeccable taste), or just sat companionably over tea in her living room and talked about everything, from difficulties with family to personal fears to favorite musicians (hers were Pat Metheny and Miles Davis), books, and writers. In retrospect, it was probably I who talked, mostly, and she who listened.

British Edition, Michael Joseph, 1962 (


I never made elaborate plans in advance to meet Lily, simply let her know when I was coming and arranged to meet once I had visited all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. In fact, on one visit I surprised her by just turning up at her door unannounced. If she was put out she didn’t show it; she seemed unflappable, which was balm to me after the high drama that always attended my family relations. Although we were as close and went back as far as any member of my mother’s family, she shuddered at the thought of my calling her “Auntie” and strictly forbade it, saying that it made her feel old. So from my teen years on, she was always just Lily, who never judged or patronized me, never presumed to tell me what to do, but always listened, with brief responses that were absolutely on the mark. And she told me what to read.



Lily was a voracious and discerning reader who had her finger on the intellectual pulse of the city. She seemed to know everyone, had entertained Natalie Wood back in the day, had taken a creative writing class with Beryl Bainbridge before Bainbridge wrote her first novel, and had an impressive knowledge of the music and culture of our generation as well. Now that I look back, I realize that I counted on her to let me know what I had missed since I had last been in London, and to point me in the right direction for catching up. Only now do I realize that it was Lily who introduced me to the writers and ideas that have become the subject matter of my scholarly work and the touchstones of my sense of belonging in the world. Only now, after she is gone, do I realize that it was Lily who turned me on to Doris Lessing (“If you liked The Summer Before the Dark, that’s nothing compared to The Golden Notebook”) in the Spring of 1974 when I was studying in London and trying to read all the contemporary British fiction that I could (see TMA #135, Doris Lessing and Me); Lily (as well as my dear Uncle Ted) who sent us a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the early 1980s, soon after its publication; Lily who, on hearing in 1990 that I was interested in Black British writing, sent me to Compendium bookshop to pick up a copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power; The History of Black People in Britain. Who else of my mother’s generation in England read all Maya Jaggi’s book reviews in The Guardian as well as remembering what life was like before the War? How is it that only now, as I try to process the shocking news of her death, do I see what a critical role she played in my intellectual development?

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Lily had been my mother’s best friend from childhood. They were born months apart in the late 1920s and grew up together in the same working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, North London. They aced their Eleven-plus exam together, went off to Grammar School at Parliament Hill School together (well, six months apart, but that’s another story), were both evacuated from London, along with their school, to live with different foster families in St. Albans during the bombing, left school together, got their first jobs at the same time, and went to the movies and out dancing together a couple of times a week. It was indirectly through Mum that Lily met and fell in love with Leon, the man she married; Mum met Dad around the same time and marriage was soon to take her away from England and Lily, but they remained close friends, writing to each other, exchanging cards, and getting together every time we returned.

After global communications became easier, Lily would always ring on my mother’s birthday and Mum would do the same on hers. She even came to visit in America once or twice, and Mum made a big fuss of her. She loved Lily, and always respected and admired her as well, her intelligence and dry wit, her beauty, sophistication, and style. Perhaps in her mind Lily had the life that she sometimes felt she would have liked to have lived if she had stayed in England rather than uprooting and traveling across three continents. In any case, whenever I visited Lily in London I couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow it should have been my mother, not me, who was enjoying tea with her in her sunny and elegant living room (no one else we knew, before or since, had a chaise longue). But it wasn’t my mother, of course; it was me.

Now, as I prepare once again to return to London, the city will present me with a bleaker, more impersonal face. Doris Lessing died in November at age 94, and though I have mourned her, the loss will come home to me again as I ramble over the Heath in Hampstead as she did so often (and where my mother once happened to see her, walking on the Heath herself—with Lily, I shouldn’t wonder). Lily died several months before Doris Lessing, although I still don’t know the date; as things turned out we didn’t receive the sad news until some time after Christmas. I will try to visit her daughter and son, whom I haven’t seen for many years and but nonetheless feel a kinship with. Even as I look forward eagerly to meeting my beloved friends and family, I can’t help feeling a certain dread, because for the first time I will be returning to a London without Lily.

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130. Orwellian Jingles

In 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1990s, Books, Britain, Childhood, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on November 27, 2011 at 8:35 pm

“Oranges and Lemons” (

Gauri Deshpande, the late, great Marathi writer, Indian English poet, and Marathi-English translator, once told me that when she was studying for her PhD in English at the University of Poona, her professor had insisted that his graduate students learn all the Mother Goose rhymes. He had said that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand a body of literature until they were steeped in the culture that the writers themselves would have imbibed even before they could use language. Gauri said that although at first she had felt silly reciting nursery rhymes, she had come to appreciate the wisdom of her professor’s unorthodox approach. I experienced the truth of this in my first year of fulltime teaching, when I was asked to teach Twentieth-Century British Writers and one of my chosen texts was George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mindful of the way Orwell tended to be taught in American high schools, and that my American students were likely to have been introduced to him as an anti-communist writer, I wanted to draw their attention to the novel’s English particularities. As I began re-reading in preparation for teaching it, my way suddenly became clear.

The scrawny hero, Winston Smith, is haunted by fragments of Oranges and Lemons, the old London children’s song chanted in accompaniment to the playground game of the same name.* I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed this before, but now I saw that it was all part of Orwell’s plan. Fascinated with history precisely because the government seeks to erase it, Winston Smith firmly believes that he can find refuge in the “Golden Country” of the past. As he mingles with the “proles,” the working classes of London, he fixates on the old song as the key to his lost past and seeks out elderly people who might be able to remember all the words. He finds an old man who says he knows it, but the fellow disappoints him, having forgotten the ending. If you know the rhyme, you will be well aware that the ending is critically important. It starts out benignly enough but grows progressively more ominous, taking a sudden, bloodthirsty turn in the last two lines; poor Winston learns too late that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

One of the settings of the novel, and the place where we leave Winston at the end, is the Chestnut Tree Café. What the chestnut tree signifies is also unknown to most citizens on Airstrip One (or Britain, in Orwell’s totalitarian future). Only someone familiar with British popular culture of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s  would fully appreciate the poignancy of that name. Harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sentimental 19th-century poem, The Village Blacksmith, “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree,” a popular love song in Britain of the 1930s, went:

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved her and she loved me.
There she used to sit upon my knee
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There she said she’d marry me
Now you ought to see our family
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree!

This song too was sung to a kind of game, one of hand movements in which each successive iteration removes more words and replaces them with mimed gestures. In his wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell spoke affectionately of England as a family “with the wrong people in charge.” If you’ve seen the 1939 Pathe newsreel of King George and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother, that is) singing and miming “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” to signal their unity with the “proles,” it is just possible to believe in Orwell’s view of England as a family, albeit a rather dysfunctional one. But in Nineteen Eighty-Four, written after the war, the version played on the telescreen paints a very different picture of the nation:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

Here is a society ruled by total and totalizing power, where children will turn in their parents and lovers betray their beloved for fear of Big Brother. The official language, Newspeak, is eliminating words from the English language so quickly that we are told it will soon be impossible even to formulate the ideas to engage in “thoughtcrime,” silencing potential traitors preemptively. That once-reassuring symbol of national unity, the chestnut tree, has indeed spread, reaching its tentacles into every home and every mind.

*If you are interested in the culture and folklore of playground games, I highly recommend Iona and Peter Opie’s 1959 study, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

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79. Baths, Bathing, and Hot Water Bottles

In 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on October 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Public Baths, Prince of Wales Road (photo: justinc)

Growing up in North London before the Second World War, my mother and her family had an outhouse in the garden and used the public baths down the street to bathe and do their laundry. The Prince of Wales Baths, built in 1900, are in use today as the newly renovated Kentish Town Sports Centre, run by the London Borough of Camden. For at least a couple of decades after the War, there were many Londoners who did not have full bathrooms in their houses. They washed at the kitchen sink, shared a single lavatory on one of the landings, and still went down to the public baths.

Renting rooms as college students in London during the 1970s, we had to feed 10p coins (still called florins or two-bob bits despite the new decimal currency) into the gas meter for hot water, paying as we went. We had to keep a stock of them handy at all times, because it is one of the worst experiences imaginable when the water suddenly goes stone-cold halfway through a bath. The housing stock was old, and few homes were centrally heated, so we counted on a hot bath at night, followed by a running jump into sheets pre-heated with a hot water bottle.

Living in the United States, I have succumbed to the speed and efficiency of showers. Luxuriating in a tub bath is a once-a-month treat, if that. But I miss this relaxing evening ritual and enjoy it whenever I am visiting my family in England. “I’m running your bath, Jo,” my cousin Sue will say, “and then we’ll snuggle up and watch Ghost, with Patrick Swayze and a nice cup of tea.”

People accustomed to showering, particularly Americans, tend to look askance at British bathing as an unhygienic practice, and perhaps it was, rather, in the past, when several members of a family in succession might use the same bathwater to economize on hot water (and on florins). But it is always possible to rinse off with fresh water after one’s soak in the tub, and my cousin Lesley told me that her mother always made her rinse with cold water, “to close the pores.” To this day I try to follow this sound—and bracing—advice, but I must admit that I usually lose my nerve and settle for a cool or lukewarm rinse.

In India the bath is a mandatory morning ritual, and the day cannot properly begin until one has had one’s refreshing and purifying bath. Certainly one cannot break one’s fast before bathing. Most middle-class Indians—at least until recently, when more people have showers—would bathe with one bucket of hot water from an on-demand water heater called a “geyser.” My favorite morning baths have been in our family home in Ratnagiri, where, at first light, Mai-atya’s young companion (she never considered the young women who lived with her to be servants) would light a small wood fire in the old copper boiler to heat just enough water for everyone’s baths, if we were economical. That boiler has been there since my father’s youth, and is still going strong today. I would wake to a cup of tea and the smell of wood smoke, and when my turn came, would step out of the house and into the attached washroom, where I would fill a stainless-steel bucket with the desired mix of cold water from the 55-gallon drum and hot water from the boiler, and, sitting on the low wooden bath stool, soap up and rinse with a plastic pouring mug dipped into the bucket.

In Delhi’s intense summer heat before the arrival of the moonsoon rains, the trick was to bathe, dry, and dress oneself before getting into a sweat again. The strategy I developed was to rinse with cold water, and then dry off and dress under a fan. Inevitably, though, one was soaked through within minutes of completing the whole procedure, so one had to take two or three baths a day, especially  in late May and June.

At boarding school in Darjeeling during the worst times of drought before the monsoons, the school swimming pool had to serve as our water supply. We were rationed to one mugful for our faces and teeth in the mornings and two three-minute (cold) showers a week, with an older girl standing outside to make sure that we did not linger past our allotted time.

The sheets were so cold at night in the stone building that housed the girls’ dormitories that we needed hot water bottles to take the chill off them. To fill our bottles we had to venture down into the cavernous kitchens, where water for the next morning’s porridge was bubbling in massive industrial-sized cauldrons. I was always losing things, and my hot water bottle was no exception, so I had to beg a dormmate in a neighboring bed to lend me hers just for a few minutes to save me from the excruciating plunge into those icy sheets.

Our own bathing practices today are a hybrid. Our hundred-year-old farmhouse bathroom still has its original clawfoot tub, with a retrofitted shower head. Most of the time we shower, American-style, but we keep a stainless-steel bucket and a plastic pouring mug in the bathroom and use them from time to time as well. When Nikhil was little, he looked forward to his tub bath—boats, rubber duckies, and all—as part of the nightly bedtime ritual, insisting that I sit and read to him while he played.

Years ago, when we visited Michael in New Mexico, Michael’s high-power housemate would come home from her demanding job and, never one to do anything by half measures, would drink cups of chamomile tea while soaking in a hot bath filled with chamomile flowers, a recipe for calming herself inside and out. My friends send me bath salts with labels like Ginger/Mint Aromatherapy Foam Bath: Warm and Replenishing: not-so-subtle hints, perhaps, that I need to slow down and unwind more often. This chilly October day, I am sitting on the bed with a hot water bottle as I write, and a nice cup of tea on the bedside table. The bath will have to wait until after I have finished my taxes.

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53. Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

In 1930s, 1940s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories on June 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

In my mother’s stories of her childhood, when the Salvation Army band marched into her working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, she and the other children would hasten to find half a lemon and suck it noisily right in front of the horn players, bold as brass. One by one, the musicians would salivate and pucker up, and “Onward Christian Soldiers” would come a cropper.

Mum hadn’t read (George Bernard) Shaw’s Major Barbara then, of course, but she and the Fabian Shaw would have got on with each other. When she got older, other visitors toured the slums of London, among them Paul Robeson, who made a powerful impression on her. She became deeply concerned with justice for all, not just her own small corner of the world; barely out of the War and her teens, and still some time before she would meet my father, she marched for India’s Independence.

Now Dad had read Shaw by then, all of Shaw, and many times over.  His father had The Complete Plays in two volumes in his library in Ratnagiri, and Dad used to sneak in to read them and another voluminous (and racy) work, Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. All through my childhood Dad quoted Shaw (“As Shaw would say…”) in just about equal measure as he pronounced sonorous Sanskrit slokas and pithy Marathi sayings. Remembering the brilliant, if lengthy, editorializing in Shaw’s stage directions, it occurs to me that he was a combination of my father and mother—the liberal intellectual and the bohemian socialist. Faced with self-righteous do-gooders, my father would quote Shaw and my mother, suck lemons.

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42. The Times Tables

In 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, Childhood, Education, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States on May 7, 2010 at 11:00 am

As a child, like most of my generation, I had to memorize and recite the multiplication tables. The singsong recitation of the times tables was a not-unpleasant soundtrack to my early schooldays. We recited them as a group, we recited them at home under our breath, we recited them in our dreams, until, on cue in the classroom—or indeed anywhere, and for the rest of our lives—we were able to retrieve the product of any given combination of numbers from our memory banks effortlessly, and at lightning speed. Three elevens? Easy: thirty-three. Eight sixes? No problem, the same as six eights: forty-eight. Twelve twelves? A hundred and forty-four (or a gross—since the old British measures still lingered).

In India we were officially responsible for knowing the answer to the multiplication of any two numbers between one and sixteen (although I never mastered any beyond twelve). It was rote learning, no doubt, but rote learning employed where it worked best. Through repetition, in a reassuring rhythm, these basic computations became second-nature to us. And in any case, there was not to reason why: it was simply what we did.

Thirty years on, Nikhil’s schooldays had a different soundtrack. By the time he was in elementary school, requiring a student to memorize numbers or words was considered something akin to child abuse, and recitation of the times tables was retrograde. In fact, they were no longer even called multiplication tables, but were now simply Math Facts. Rather than being required to memorize them in logically ascending patterns of numbers, the children were now given worksheets to take home with lists of assorted math facts on them, in no discernible order. They were expected to practice filling out these sheets faster and faster, using higher and higher numbers, until they attained their personal best in speed and accuracy.

As a parent, I was at a loss to understand how Nikhil could be expected to memorize the products of seemingly random combinations of numbers without their being organized into tables by number, and without reciting them. (Kids have marvellous memories, and before Nikhil and Eric even went to school, reciting numbers was a game for them, their minds naturally creating their own order. I remember three or four-year-old Nikhil counting by tens up to a hundred: “…seven-ty, eight-ty, nine-ty—ten-ty!”) But somehow, without recourse to recitation, he did manage to master his Math Facts; and in any case, he now has the computations at his fingertips at all times, thanks to the calculator function in his iPhone.

If the educators of the nineties considered it borderline-abusive to require memorization of the multiplication tables from one to twelve, I wonder what they would have thought of  the system in my father’s boyhood? He had to memorize the tables not only for whole numbers, but for fractions: a quarter, a half, three-quarters, one and a quarter, one and a half. As my father recited out loud—in Marathi, of course—his father monitored him from a distance, while reading in the next room. Whenever he slipped or faltered, his father simply marked his mistake with a questioning grunt, and he had to start over. Before long, the answer to six three-quarters came as easily to him as the answer to six sixes does to me.

It is easy to mock today’s concern for children’s tender sensibilities from the perspective of old-school “common sense,” and I have been guilty of it above. But I can’t help thinking of an exchange I had with a classmate one day when I was eight, and we were being called on one at a time to recite a memorized poem in class. Like the times tables, the recitation of canonical poems or passages from Shakespeare plays was a regular requirement, but the experience was dramatically different for every child. Words came easy to me and, when called on, I loved showing off in front of the class. (In fact, I was no doubt one of those irritating kids who has her hand up insistently, early and often. “Please miss, please, ask me!”) On this one particular day, as I swaggered back to my desk after my performance, the hapless classmate who had been called upon next muttered to me, “It’s all very well for you—you love it.”

At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and merely dismissed his bitter tone as sour grapes. It was not until many years later that it dawned on me that what had been positively pleasurable for me had probably been torture to him. While for me, memories of “Daffodils” and “The quality of mercy” are like Portia’s gentle rain from heaven, for many they are associated with the lingering hell of childhood failure, punishment, and humiliation. I could not identify with that schoolboy from Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” speech, “creeping like snail/ unwillingly to school”: I loved school. Still, socialization, while certainly preparing us for the world, took its toll. As Nikhil used to say of elementary school, “It’s okay. But it takes up too much time.”

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33. A Nice Bit of Spanish

In 1930s, 2000s, Britain, Stories on March 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

In the 1930’s, when my mother was a girl in Kentish Town, her Gran would give her and each of her siblings a ha’penny every week, and Gran’s son, their Uncle Tich, would give them each a farthing. Clutching their coins, they would make a beeline for the sweetshop and eye the tempting displays on the counter, since the sweets sold by the ounce in the rows of glass jars on the wall were priced out of their reach. The sweetshop owner would not only set out an array of sweets for a penny each, but ha’penny and  even farthing trays as well. As a child I loved listening to Mum’s descriptions of the astounding variety of sweets there were to choose from, and at prices that sounded fantastically cheap to me. Some children liked the toffees, others the mints, still others the black-and-white striped bull’s eyes. Mum’s favorites were the boiled sweets with soft fruit-flavored centers, while her elder sister Bette went for the Spanish licorice (“a nice bit of Spanish,” as she calls it to this day).

The siblings would make their purchases according to their personalities, some of them swift and decisive, others cautious and painstaking. Similarly, when it came to eating them, they either devoured them all at once or savored them slowly, one at a time, squirreling away a secret supply for later in the week. Bette favored the eat-’em-at-once approach, while Rene was a natural hoarder.  According to Mum, Bette would eat all her sweets with relish and then start working on Rene, begging  her not to be stingy and to share her hoard. Rene, who always had a soft heart, was also a soft touch, so Bette made out like a bandit, eating most of her own sweets and a good number of Rene’s as well. As the youngest, Mum made out best of all, because without much effort she was able to keep her own sweets and get still more, bestowed freely by both loving sisters on little “Bund” (short for “Bundle”).

Auntie Rene’s childhood generosity was a lifelong trait. We called her “Father Christmas” because every year her parcel arrived on schedule, and no one was forgotten. Throughout our childhood she spoiled us, and then she spoiled the next generation. Every year at Easter, Nikhil and Tyler received an egg carton in the mail from Great-Auntie Rene filled with Kinder Surprises, the little foil-wrapped chocolate eggs that break open to reveal parts and assembly instructions for ingenious little toys.

To be fair to Auntie Bette, in the three-quarter century since she fast-talked Auntie Rene out of her sweets, she has made up for them many times over with those that she has distributed to her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And as for eating them herself, well, it is a great pleasure to watch a connoisseur at work.

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10. Ghosts of New Boston

In 1930s, 1980s, history, places, Stories, United States on March 5, 2010 at 4:35 am

little red wagon      (photo by Thuyhn at

The Hurricane of 1938 had wreaked havoc in north-central Massachusetts, and when we moved to Winchendon in 1983,  less than fifty years later, the memories were still very much alive. Old-timers told us stories of being rescued from second-floor windows, and our farm bordered on the flood-control zone that had been created in the aftermath by the Army Corps of Engineers, a large area of land that would be sacrificed to save Route 2 and the town of Athol in the event of another deluge.  Driving down River Street toward the farm, we passed the floodgates which, though usually open, had to be closed for one high-water period in the seven years we lived there. Then Charlie Gamble took out his canoe and paddled the boys down our street to the river. How exciting when the rutted old road suddenly became a waterway!

But when the Corps first built the Birch Hill Dam and commandeered the flood control acreage by eminent domain, it cannot have been so exciting for the residents of the little community of New Boston. Since the land on which they had built their homes was to be inundated in the event of another Great Hurricane, they were obliged to pack up and move, leaving their homesteads to be reclaimed by the forest.

The resulting Birch Hill Wildlife Management Area lay just to the south of our land and, turning off River Street onto a well-maintained dirt road, we passed right through what was left of New Boston. In the spring, old lilac bushes marked the sites of abandoned homesteads, and in the fall our eyes were peeled for the wizened apple trees whose small, pockmarked, but tasty fruit we collected for cidering. One day we found an old dump in the woods behind one of the cellarholes, and brought home as treasures the remnants of another family’s life—glass bottles that had once contained patent medicines and a wooden bicycle wheel.  Another day we found a foundation with the brick chimney still standing and a child’s red wagon, still only a little rusty, lying in the yard as if the family had left in a hurry not so long ago, and had always intended to come back for it.

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