Doorways to the Past

A recent lazy-afternoon stroll through Galveston left me marveling over the heaps and piles of merchandise that overflow the shelves of souvenir shops along Seawall Boulevard and the Strand. 

The souvenir business is interesting, and if my afternoon browse is any indication, it hasn’t changed much over the decades.  Asked about her top products, the proprietess of one shop acknowledged that tee shirts, coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, risqué shot glasses, refrigerator magnets and beach towels are her most dependable sellers.  “They move a lot faster than my candles and iPod covers,” she said. “People like the high-end stuff, but once you get home you can’t tell the difference between the soap you bought here and soap you’d buy at Dillards. People want to prove they’ve been on The Island, not in a Houston department store. If you put “Galveston” on it, it’ll sell – that’s the name of the game.”

Shops do carry quality items that reflect Galveston’s life – there are books filled with Island history, chronicles of storms, photographs and tropical art – but most souvenirs are, to put it charitably, generic. They could be sold anywhere. There’s nothing unique about a Galveston kite or Galveston Koozie apart from the name.  If you purchase a tee shirt emblazoned with the phrase Genuine Galveston Souvenir Tee Shirt it comes with a guarantee you’ll someday meet someone wearing a Genuine (Pick Your City) Souvenir Tee Shirt . 

Even the sand dollars, sundials and lightning whelks filling the baskets by the cash registers are identical to those found in shops from Port Isabel to Key West. Shelling on Texas beaches is erratic at best, and no retailer would dare depend on local sources to stock the shelves. So, Wholesale-SeaShells-R-Us steps in, ready and able to supply the souvenir needs of an entire city.

In a sense, none of this really matters. Most visitors don’t care about authenticity, or worry if their purchases are unrelated to Galveston. At Murdoch’s Bathhouse they buy buckets of shells from the South Pacific, sort through fragile beauties from Florida or carry off huge Bahamian conchs and are happy to do so. The shells are pretty – much prettier than Texas shells – and they’re especially attractive in a lamp base. Still, it’s a little sad. The labels say “Goa”, “Panama” or “Australia”, not “Freeport” or “Port Bolivar”.  The glass starfish are made in Italy, the bamboo wind chimes arrived from Indonesia and all those ashtrays, replica lighthouses and hibiscus-covered metal serving trays are stamped “Made in China”.  It’s all part of the souvenir game.

I’ve been thinking about souvenirs since finding a box of felt pennants and colorful postcards tucked into a long-unopened cedar chest. Collected during family vacations, primarily in the 1950s, they suggest a Midwestern version of the Grand Tour. We visited Omaha and roamed the stockyards. We stared in awe at the giant shovels working the iron ore mines in Hibbing, Minnesota and made pilgrimage to South Dakota’s claim to fame, the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Digging a little deeper, I found souvenirs of travel through Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, with an occasional side jaunt into Colorado. For our place and time, we were traveling fools. Given a choice between staying and going, my father was gone, and we were the ones in tow, happy to share his obsessive quest to make “just one more mile”.

Strangely, I remember little of the places pictured on these newly-discovered cards.  I know we were there – I’m looking at the evidence – but my knowledge is barren and poor.  The pennants hang lifeless, the postcards are mute. They tell me nothing of the people or places they represent, and might as well belong to a stranger.  I can admire them, making vague, off-handed remarks about “how much things have changed”, but they have no power to enliven memory or evoke emotion.

On the other hand, certain souvenirs collected during our travels continue to make me smile, despite having been discarded decades ago.  For years I cherished a baked-potato-sized chunk of basalt, picked up from a shallow crevasse near the Continental Divide in Colorado.  

Even in memory, that rock is more substantial than the physical objects piled before me on my table. “Seeing” the rock again, I smooth my hand over its black glossiness and feel its weight. I remember the amazement of July snow, and the pleasure my father took in being hit with an awkwardly-thrown snowball. I don’t need to see again the photograph which shows me seated on the sign to know we had stopped at Loveland Pass (11,990 feet), and I certainly don’t need a tape recording to hear my mother saying, “Don’t get too close to the edge.”

For years my baking-potato-basalt knocked around my room, a friendly reminder of a delightful trip. Fancier rocks we’d purchased from souvenir shops – rhodocrosite and feldspar, mica and quartz – managed to make it to school for a post-vacation “Show and Tell” session, but soon after they were relegated to a cigar box, where they first were forgotten and then disappeared.   

The difference between my basalt and that box of mixed rocks is the difference between a keepsake and a souvenir. While it’s true the words “souvenir” and “keepsake” are used interchangeably, “keepsake” implies a richness of relationship and history often missing with “souvenir”.  Both evoke memories, but a true keepsake goes further by incarnating memory, allowing it to take on weight and substance. Keepsakes are more than the thing itself – the postcard, the starfish or shell. Keepsakes are like windows opening into history, or like doorways leading to the past.  

My handsome basalt, plucked from the ground by my own hand and doubly-cherished because of it, was a keepsake, a door opening into the joys of childhood.  The lovely Southwestern tile at the top of this page is a keepsake, resonant with the voices of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, crisp as morning air stirring through windows on the High Road to Taos.

A clutch of silver bracelets obtained by barter along the trade routes, a copper basket complementing the red rocks of Abiquiu with its glow, a worn pair of leather work gloves, a hand-turned mesquite bowl or a tiny, fanciful cactus flower – each of these is a keepsake, a door into memory’s room which I can open or close at will. 

Making the decision to open that door can be difficult. There’s no question we are busy people, absorbed in the present or obsessed with the future. Inattentive and distracted, sometimes easily swayed, we’re more than capable of confusing cheap and shoddy experience with the joys of a life well-lived.  Eager for novelty and dismissive of the past, we can be easy targets for folks hoping to sell us a Genuine Human Souvenir Tee Shirt.

Unfortunately, one size never fits all – not in tee shirts, and not in life. We need to be enticed, cajoled and encouraged to stop browsing the shelves of ready-made memories and recognize the true treasures of our lives.  Each of us is surrounded by keepsakes, singular bits of memory that are ours alone. Those keepsakes are both the door and the voice drawing us through that door, cacophonous and insistent or singing a solitary and wistful song. Clamoring for attention from the midst of the crowd or whispering down the corridors of an empty present, the voices beckon.

Open the door. 
Fling wide the window.
Part the curtains of memory. 
Dare to look.
Take time to listen.

Visible or invisible, intangible or weighty with the accretions of time,  a past you’ve once held in your hand is a past that can open your heart. We need to keep those memories close, for the sake of our humanity.


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13 thoughts on “Doorways to the Past

  1. True – oh, so true!

    Linda, this is a wonderful piece, and will probably evoke a different memory in each of us who read it.

    Your baked-potato-sized basalt reminds me a similar item I picked from the roadside in Zambia. The roads near the mining area were littered with the natural resource, amethyst. Usually small chips and damaged chunks, possiblly second rate, but just occasionally a palm sized piece could be found. I was lucky enough to find such a chunk one day when we were out driving. I caught sight of something sparkling in the grass at the side of the road when the sunlight obligingly caught the facets. It is egg-shaped and is still in my possession, nearly forty years later. Today, when I pick it up, gently rolling it in my palm, I am mentally transported back to the bush where I can ‘feel’ the dry heat searing my lungs when I breathe in.

    Thank you for allowing me to wallow in memories. Your writing does that – effortlessly :)


    Your Zambian story reminded me of one of my favorite writing quotations from Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I suspect Chekov would have been equally happy with sunlight glinting off shattered amethyst.

    It’s amazing to me how time collapses in the face of certain objects, and how many memories can cluster around the smallest bit of “stuff”. And of course, more than “things” can be keepsakes. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the experience of dry, searing heat doesn’t recall Zambia to you, just as the smell of snow in the air can suddenly transport me back to my childhood winters. Such experiences may not be tea and madeleines, but I’d still call them Proustian. And keepsakes.


  2. You forgot about Colonel Bubbie’s. There’s a cat in there that hates me. Bites me every time I’m there.


    You know, there was great anxiety abroad in the land after Ike. There were rumors the Colonel wasn’t going to re-open. Can you imagine such a thing? Wherever would I get my German canteens and khaki webbing for the deck chairs?

    I just did a search and discovered they’re on the web now. I see you can get an Army commendation medal for only $12.50 (plus shipping, I presume). Maybe I’ll pick one up and if you visit and the cat doesn’t bite you, we can give it to the cat!


  3. “We need to keep those memories close for the sake of our humanity.”
    Love this closing line. It’s the crux of the matter.

    But wait. What are you going to do with the postcards and felt pennants? I have a giant box of postcards, too, and am torn. Keep? throw? paste into a journal as non-sequitors? Take digital pictures of them and then toss them? Many have notes on them, were actually sent, saved and returned to me. OK, I think I just found the answer.

    And on Souvenir vs keepsake. You clarified beautifully. While we have been cleaning and yes, even hosted the dreaded garage sale, I continue to cruise the house, looking for things that can man up and be useful or gorgeous, or…go. I would love to hear you riff on our tendencies to packrat. I realize there are various levels of it, some quite intense, but I think for Americans it is much like our approach to food – we take on way too much. and our living spaces get fat!

    PS: What do you have as keepsake from the Midwest? (as in MO area? Just curious.)

    PPS: I am surprised at the things that are best sellers in the souvenir shops! I tend to be a potholder purchaser – I always seem to need them and love that some come from our travels!


    The postcards and pennants are gone. Poof! If I have no memory of something, or it doesn’t stir memories, there seems to reason to keep it.

    Sometimes, of course, one person’s bit of nothing is another person’s treasure, and that’s led to some conflict around here when it comes to throwing out. For example, my mom and I came across a pair of my leather baby shoes. They mean absolutely nothing to me, and everything to her – but she’s the one who remembers me wearing them. On the other hand, she looks at my basket of rocks and says, “Why would you want to keep those filthy old things?” I look at them and see the sun setting over the Abiquiu hills near Georgia O’Keefe’s home, and hear the silence. Those rocks are keepers, for sure.

    My Mid-western keepsakes are mostly from my childhood or my family, which means Iowa. A piece of carnival glass, a goofus glass pin dish, a cobalt Shirley Temple milk pitcher that sat on my grandmother’s table – that sort of thing. Oh – and a book that was given to my grandmother as a gift. It will filled with pressed flowers that I’ve had framed, and I use the silk ribbon that was in the book as my bookmarker. ;-)

    That riff is coming, by the way – albeit from a slightly different direction. I’ve got the title, but I can’t spill the beans, now can I? You’ll recognize it when it shows up,though. No question about that.

    William Morris would adore your potholders – useful and beautiful, all at once. The truth is, this post got started because I collect tiles, and have a few from the Arts and Crafts period. That’s what I started to write about, the tiles as “useful bits of beauty” – but after three title changes and a lot of re-writing, this is where we ended!


  4. You’ve illustrated perfectly the distinction between keepsake and souvenir. One is a natural catalyst for reliving genuine experience. The other seems artificial, a store-bought memory. I have a small jar of black dust that we collected on Mount Etna, and bits of pumice from Mount Vesuvius. We had the volcanoes under our fingernails. You can’t buy that in a gift shop.

    We do seem to have a weakness for refrigerator magnets, though.

    Thanks for another wonderful post.


    Your refrigerator magnets fall into the same category as Oh’s potholders and my tiles. They’re souvenirs, yes, but they’re useful, and often bright and pretty. They have a role to play, too – everything in the world can’t be deep and profound and emotion-laden beyond belief. We’d wear ourselves out.

    I love the thought of your pumice and dust. When you talk about getting the volcanoes under your fingernails, I think of the way I got my first Caribbean conch, from a friend experienced enough to free dive down and splash back to the surface with it. Some of my most treasured keepsakes are gifts from the natural world: pebbles from the mouth of the Russian River, chert nodules and fossilized sea creatures from the Texas hill country,
    a lightning whelk from the Rio Grande. Shoot, I once drove from the middle of Nowhere, Nevada back to Houston with a huge tumbleweed stashed in my back seat.

    But then you’ve already figured out I’m a little… whatever. ;-)


  5. When I was preparing to move to Panama I had a lot of decisions to make. I was well influenced by a quote by Betty Wilson (Sloan’s wife) in her book “Away From It All” where she wrote:

    “If we’re really going to start a new life, we have to kill the old one. That’s why most people never really start anything new. They’re claimed by old lamps and bureaus left to them by their grandmothers.”

    Besides clothing, what should I take with me? Now granted, having spent much of my adult life living on boats where one’s space is at a premium, I probably have less “stuff” than most people. But still the detritus of life piles up.

    I spent hours scanning photos which I backed up on two different CDs that are kept separate from each other. But what about that half-century-old high school year book? I took one last look, read what my classmates had written over their pictures and consigned it to the trash bin.

    Books, which can have their own sentimental value, were a harder choice but I had to be relentless and only nine made the cut, among them The Oxford Companion To Ships and the Sea (if you don’t know about this one you need to check it out).

    But two small pieces fell into that category of souvenir/keepsake that I couldn’t leave behind no matter what. One is a small colored etching of Les Ramparts of Antibes, France, where I’d spent three wonderful years. It adorned the bulkhead of the cabin of the small sailboat I lived on for almost six years. The other is a small wood carving, about four inches tall, of an old man, a fisherman, perhaps, that I got when I was about five years old. My parents and I took a road trip to Quebec, Canada, when my dad got back from the Pacific after WWII and we picked it up somewhere along the line.

    He’s old and battered now. His nose disappeared long ago, but that man has traveled with me throughout my life. He went to college with me. He lived in Chicago, voyaged with me through three of the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi River, spent three years on the French Riviera (though the REAL French would have mocked his Quebec use of their language if he could have talked). We crossed the Atlantic Ocean together and he was with me on “Nancy Dawson” as I cruised the coasts of Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. (It just occurred to me that perhaps I hadn’t made that trip single-handed.)

    The rest of my stuff? I just walked away from it all.


    “Stuff” ebbs and flows like the tide. There have been times in my life when I had very little, and times when the urge to pile up “stuff” overtook me – not the usual accretions of clothing, cars, household furnishings and such, but art china, dinnerware, oil lamps. I fell in love with “pretty things”, and that journey probably deserves its own post.

    Of late, I’ve been in a slow, gradual process of dispersement, helped along by the annual pre-hurricane season sort-through. After all, “Besides clothing, what should I take with me?” is just the right question to ask in that situation, too. I allow myself one suitcase filled with keepsakes, and the contents have remained relatively stable over the years, although there are changes now and then.

    It’s really quite interesting. The suitcase itself is the one my mother carried on her honeymoon. There are all manner of wonderful things in it – a blue and white ceramic breadboard that hung in my great-grandmother’s kitchen in Sweden. The fife that my great-great-grandfather carried in the Civil War. The cribbage board that my father and I used for years for Sunday afternoon games. A set of gold weights from Ghana. A few pieces of family jewelry. And so on….

    As you’ve rightly suggested before, it’s quite amazing how little we need not only to live, but to be happy. But the objects we treasure? Nothing wrong with carrying them with us, either. Being able to see, touch, hear or taste things that have been precious to us help those memories to stay.
    (I was quite the rock-taster as a kid… Nothing like a vintage shale.)

    I have to ask: does your fisherman have a name?


  6. Rocks are great. They make such a satisfying handful, evoking the caveman inside each of us. At the same time their textures and colors inspire curiosity, which can lead one to geology or even astrophysics. For most of us, rocks are the ultimate in fungibility.

    Yet single one out, and it becomes a durable souvenir. You have your Colorado basalt; I keep a chunk of granite blasted from Thunderhead Mountain in South Dakota. After momentary consideration I plucked it out of a mining car full of similar stones, detritus of Korczak Ziolkowski’s Crazy Horse project. It was free for the taking. I cleaned away the dust and grit that attended its violent separation from the mountain. Now it is uniquely mine. To me it has value. To anyone else it is only a rock: toss it back into the crucible of creation.

    During my visit to the Black Hills I bought a couple of t-shirts, too. They bear a Lakota Sioux imprimatur, and though they are accumulating signs of wear, they remain among my favorites. I was tempted by another souvenir, a native American flute. I thought about it hard, but ultimately chickened out. To me it implied a responsibility for which I was not sure I was ready. It was a beautiful instrument. It deserved to be played, not parked on a shelf. I’m sure I could have learned how to work it, but I’m not sure I’m the right guy. I can’t quite picture myself as David Carradeen in Circle of Iron. Here the blind flautist provides seeker Cord with a souvenir of a different kind. :)


    I’ve been amazed by the Crazy Horse project since it began. I laughed when I went to their website – it’s been a while since I’ve seen an art project offering employment opportunities! It has a vague feel of cathedral building in the middle ages, or perhaps a movie studio. Of course there are architectural firms, and sculptors and such with large studios and assistants, but still… We commonly think first of creative pursuits as solitary. Not that one.

    I’ve actually been able to coax sounds from the fife passed down to me, but not the way my grandfather could. I give it another try now and then because I think you’re right – an instrument deserves to live, which means to be played. On the other hand, one of my favorite sayings is, “Play the music, not the instrument”. Lots of us have learned to play an instrument, but still never “play the music”. That’s another of those distinctions I know is important, but can’t quite figure out. ;-)


  7. I never gave the old man a name. He was and always will be, simply, the old man.

    Completely appropriate, since he spent most of his life with the sea. ;-)

  8. Keepsakes and mementos. A busy life and a memory that mostly works on the random recall principle prompts lots of keepsakes.

    Several years ago it occured to me that my entire wardrobe consisted of souvenir clothing and T-shirts. Most items in my home come with a story. There is a jar full of rocks and pebbles. I can’t remember their stories but I know it is a jar full of good times. Somewhere I was traveling, saw a cool rainbow and picked up a little rock to remind me. Another place it could have been a parking lot where we just finished an evening of dancing, stood by the car, then danced some more. A jar full of laughter and wonder….that I can’t entirely recall…but these rocks were all good times.

    A houseful of keepsakes belongs to a life full of living.


    Darn it – now I have another chance to quote my “lost poem” and can’t quite do it. But, the fellow who wrote it was making your point about a houseful of keepsakes and their relationship to living. In the poem, he talks about giving his mother a Christmas poinsettia, saying that she always protests, says it is too big. “Still,” he says, “she is pleased.” Then, he goes on to wonder why some people are so opposed to gifts at Christmas. As he puts it, “they help to make the season stay.”

    That’s what our keepsakes and mementos do – help to make all the laughter and wonder of our lives stay.

    And I know you’ll appreciate a line I found in Sandburg’s “Good Morning, America”. He said, “Poetry is a packsack of intangible keepsakes”. When I think of some of the lines from poets and writers that have become an integral part of me, I think he’s exactly right – they’re keepsakes, too.


  9. I’m not sure the word “souvenir” deserves such short shrift. Each time I see a Québec license plate (not at all uncommon on Northeast highways), I’m touched by the slogan, “Je me souviens”. It translates as “I remember” but I can’t help but mis-read it as “Don’t forget me”.

    In any event, anyone who collects rocks must watch Desi and Lucy in “The Long, Long Trailer”.

    Al Cyone,

    Point taken, re: “souvenir”. I do think the world in which a word is spoken shapes our appreciation of it, though. Surrounded as I am by a plethora of souvenir shops – not only in Galveston but around NASA, the bayside communities, and so on – the word itself has picked up connotations that are just slightly tawdry. If I were seeing such lovely slogans as “je me souviens” around me, even on an occasional basis, I suspect my feeling for the word would be different.

    I do love road films, and found “The Long, Long Trailer” online. I’ll look forward to seeing it this weekend.


  10. Hello Linda,
    Another delightful story to read. You do know how to bring up memories.

    Our family’s “summertime road trip vacations” happened almost every year. All 5 of us got in the family car and took off for 2 weeks every August.
    My little sister collected Bobbleheads or spoons, my brother collected Pennants or the big pencils, and I collected Snowglobes. I had my snowglobes for a long time and carried them with me after I married and moved on. When we moved to Florida in 1979 I opened the box they were packed and all the water had spilled out..they were a pretty sad lot so I had to throw them out, but I have the memories.

    I have a large yellow trunk up in the attic that came from my “youth” that is full of stuff; I have not looked into it in probably 30 years or more, but last time I did open it I was shocked at it contents. I looked at that stuff for days with a smile on my face… it was a time consumer, so I had to put it back away. The lock is now frozen. I saw it in the attic a few years ago and tried to open it and could not. I will have to pry it open next time, but one day I will do so just to revive memories.

    Yes, I agree, we have keepsakes and we have souvenirs … It is nice to have some of both.
    Thanks for the wonderful story!


    It seems snowglobes haven’t lost their appeal. I’ve seen them even around Galveston, usually portraying things like surfers, shells and palm trees with the snow gently drifting down. Now and then there’s a tropical variation, with “sand” you can shake up. It’s amazing to me how clearly we remember those objects from the past – at least until the memory goes!

    If that yellow trunk were around here, I’d have gotten out the crowbar long before this – I wouldn’t be able to stand not knowing what’s in there. It was amazing enough going through the cedar chest where I found the postcards – the key had been lost and we just never messed with it. There were some real treasures there, and several things that my mom looked at and said, “What do you suppose that is?” You’d better open your trunk while your memory’s still sharp and you can identify what’s there!


  11. I’m always intrigued by your wonderful writing style, Linda, and once I get into one of your pieces, I just must read on. This is beautifully illustrated, as always.

    I was going to leave it at that, but you’ve just made me think of a long lost keepsake. There’s very little of this kind I remember now from my earliest years, but sometime before the age of ten (which was when we migrated from Englnd to Australia), an aunt gave me a little brass coloured, leather covered barrel, which I think was part of a key chain. The top screwed off, and it had two little blue dice inside. I was thrilled with it at the time, but don’t know what happened to it. When I do occasionally think back on it, I wonder if it still exists now, at least fifty years later. If so, I guess you could say that objects have a life of their own.


    Isn’t it strange how such things as your barrel “just disappear”? Or, perhaps not. Sometimes I imagine us sloughing off possessions like skin cells. It’s simply a part of life, and perhaps we’re not meant to know where they go. Every now and then I think of a little glow-in-the-dark skull I had in grade school – it fitted onto the end of a pencil. It was just one of those intriguing things a child enjoys – but it’s gone, just like your barrel.

    Speaking of objects that have a life of their own – isn’t that one of the most wonderful keepsakes ever that’s being displayed in the midst of Santiago? The capsule used to rescue the Chilean miners will become a public keepsake – like the rockets displayed across the lake from me at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words. I’ve passed on your photos of the wonderful Santiago display, and am delighted to have a window into events there that the US press has little time for because of the election. ;-)


  12. Linda, I feel like I just put down a magazine. This post is so complete, that calling it a post is like calling Beethoven’s 9th a “musical selection.”

    I agree that our memories are the true custodians of our keepsakes. Though the pennant did nothing for you, I imagine that some might use the word “nostalgia” when thinking about them. That’s a bit different from either keepsake or souvenir, eh? (I guess that’s sort of what Al was saying.)

    Thanks for taking the time to flesh out this article.




    And thank you for recognizing that it took some time to flesh this one out. One of my earliest posts set out reading, thinking and writing as a paradigm for blogging – at least my kind of blogging – and this one took more thought than most.

    Funny you should mention nostalgia. I was pondering sentimentality in a different context last night, and this morning it occurs to me that nostalgia may be memory gone all sentimental.

    There’s a great deal of encouragement in a phrase like, “I feel like I just put down a magazine”. I’m glad you thought that – thank you for stopping by to say so.


  13. OK, my dear. There is a travel magazine just waiting for this piece. I’m not sure which one — but there is. I can feel it.

    As you know, I tend to accumulate. But boy — your delineation between keepsake and souvenir is right on the mark. Yes, I have the postit pads that say Las Vegas and the deck of cards from where we stay for the trade show. Those are my souvenirs. But for the most part, I get the keepsakes — I try to find earrings when I travel. (Oddly, couldn’t find any I liked in Paris.) But in general, do I like it, do I want it, will I use it or show it?

    And the rocks. I am oft teased about my rock collection — few of which are pretty. But I remember that day in Rhode Island when my one-time boyfriend and I climbed an old fort, and all I could smell was the thick, sweet scent of honeysuckle. I picked up a rock I have today. He was long ago, I don’t look at it and pine. I look at it and remember the honeysuckle and sun and discovering someplace new. Definitely a keepsake.

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