Honoring Our Ancestors Newsletter

February 15, 2007

By Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak SmolenyakGreetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Well, another crazy month. As you'll see from this issue, there's a lot happening in genealogy these days -- including several new toys for us to play with -- and that's always a good thing! Here's hoping something in this issue sparks an idea, leads to a new lead, or is otherwise useful to you!

Take care,


In this newsletter. . .

Emerald Ancestors Looks Promising

Do you have any ancestors who hail from Northern Ireland? I do, and it's been a bit of a hassle. I have quite a few family details about my great-grandparents, David Shields and Margaret (McKaig) Shields, from Northern Ireland, but three rounds of research by professional genealogists there have yielded nothing. But now there's hope.

Recently launched Emerald Ancestors focuses specifically on Northern Ireland. According to the website:

"Emerald Ancestors provides instant access to one of the largest collections of Irish genealogy records available, as well as a range of rare Irish history book reprints. We specialise in Irish Ancestry within Northern Ireland and our extensive database contains birth, marriage, death, and census records for over 1 million Ancestors in Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone."

It's one of those deals where you can search for free, but have to pay to get full results. I have a bad habit, so I couldn't resist subscribing (which you can do for a month or a year).

After playing with the database, I have plenty of leads to pursue -- assorted Shields and McKaigs in the right place at the right time. But the site does not give you digitized images. Rather, it provides basic names, dates and places from the documents. You can request a full transcript of an actual document (which will be emailed to you), but an extra fee is involved. I'm not quite ready to try that out yet, but will blog about it when I do.

Be sure to use the "Ancestry Search" option (see the menu at top) to deal with common names since this is essentially the site's advanced search. Otherwise, you can find yourself wading through far too many candidates.

In a dream world, I'd like this site to have more records and digitized versions, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If you've got Northern Irish roots, you know that there's been a surprising dearth of indexes available for this area, so Emerald Ancestors is a nice step in the right direction -- and I plan on keeping an eye on it. It can only become more useful over time!

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Tombstone Imagery

How do you feel about images -- either photos or video -- on tombstones? I've got an article in Ancestry.com's 24/7 Family History Circle on this. Personally, I'm a little partial to photos (check out a tombstone with some Smolenak(ova) family members here), but if you've got any thoughts on the matter, feel free to share them at 24/7 or here. And here's a link to the book I mention, in case that's of interest to you. A little on the high side (well, pretty darn pricey actually), but fascinating if you're into this kind of thing.

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Powell & Gladwell: Different Time, Different Place, Same Face

I'm a big fan of best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell -- to the extent that "blink" and "tipping point" stray into my conversation way more than they should. So I decided to check out his blog.

Naturally, I was intrigued when I read this part of his bio:

"My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions."

I was at Ellis Island last year when Colin Powell was honored -- and just happened to snap this shot of Colin Powell's father. Based solely on appearances, I'd have to say Gladwell's got a case! What do you think?

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Funeral Home Directors Are Our Friends

In his latest blog posting, Rick Crume points out that funeral homes are a neglected gold mine for genealogists, and I couldn't agree more. Check out this quote from me in a Wall Street Journal article that appeared last October 10th:

Unfortunately, there have been a lot of mergers, buyouts and consolidations in the funeral industry in the U.S. over the last decade or so, but there are still plenty of funeral homes that have been around for decades. And even those that have merged (look for the telltale snippet of the name of an old funeral home as part of a current-day one), often retain the records from the one(s) they absorbed.

Definitely worth a shot if you haven't already tried this resource. But please be respectful of the directors. We don't want to wear out our welcome!

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Immigration Paradise!

The last couple of months have been a virtual paradise for those of us who are into immigration records. First came a massive update to Ancestry.com's Immigration Collection with the addition of millions of records from 1820 to 1960.

And then came the addition of Hamburg Emigration and other German records, announced by Ancestry.com yesterday. I amused myself by going here and searching for "Hasselhoff" records.

And now comes the announcement of emigration records from the British National Archives (just 1890-1899 for now, but eventually going to 1960) from Find My Past.

I took the opportunity to play with this site recently, and find it very promising. It offers not only the expected British records, but many records for Irish and even mainland Europeans who traveled to other locations via the U.K. I also like the prospect it provides of being able to tie together families that emigrated to different countries. For instance, I belong to a branch of Nelligans who came to the U.S., but have always heard of a branch that went to Australia, so I intend to experiment with Find My Past to see if I might be able to pick up a trail.

The search functionality of the site is fine, and when you get cursory results, you can opt for either a transcript or a digital image (see below for an example of a transcript that includes passenger name, place of departure, destination port, and a few other details, such as others traveling with that passenger). I also snagged a digital image and found it to be very legible and fairly easy to maneuver around.

View image

I do have a couple of minor gripes, though. Unfortunately, I find that the site doesn't play well with Firefox when it comes to viewing transcripts and images (not without some effort anyway), so it's probably best to use Explorer. That's not a huge deal, but what I really don't care for is the credits/time approach to searching. Mind you, Find My Past is not the only site to use this approach, but it still irritates me.

Basically, you have a series of options for buying packets of credits -- and the more you buy, the lower the price-per-credit goes. You then use these credits to view either transcripts (10 credits) or digital images (25 credits). This pricing approach drives me nuts because it forces the user to be overly strategic in their searching. Unless you want to over-spend, you have to carefully consider each and every view, and that's a challenging way to research. I like to get in there and really "work" a database, so I much prefer to pay one flat annual fee (I'd even be willing to pay a premium for this) and be done with it. When I search, I want to focus on the search and not the ticking meter.

Also, it's important to be aware that each packet comes with an expiration date (perhaps a month or a year). So if you purchase a packet, do some searching, and still have some leftover credits, you had better make a mental note or you could lose those credits down the road a bit -- if, like many, you periodically dive in for some research, leave it for a bit, and then dive in again.

Again, I prefer subscription options that don't require me to monitor them so closely. That may be a personal problem because I have so many online subscriptions that it's a hassle to keep these kinds of details straight. And I want to emphasize that Find My Past is far from the only site that uses this approach. In general, it's pretty popular with European genealogical websites.

So please don't let my venting on this particular issue scare you off from Find My Past. I am a customer and intend to remain one, and I'm excited at the prospect of what I might be able to find. I'm just hoping that they'll consider offering a flat-fee pricing option at some point!

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Footnote Frenzy

Oh, man . . . I am on a genealogical bender. Subscribing to new sites left and right. Just signed on for findmypast yesterday and footnote today. So many toys, so little time.

I'm not going to do an in-depth review of Footnote (at least not now) because Dick Eastman and Chris Dunham already have. See for yourself:

National Archives and Footnote Launch Project to Digitize Historic Documents Online

Footnote.com for Historians, Genealogists and Many Others

Taking Note of Footnote

But I have spent a little time playing and can say that this looks like another fun site. It's another one of those situations where it will become more useful over time, but I really like the way it works. As Chris pointed out, the searching is very google-like (be sure to search "lastname, firstname" as well as "firstname lastname"). And I especially like the visual interface -- the zooming, ability to save to your own gallery (as I did with a few items that looked interesting, and worthy of later follow-up), and so forth.

There doesn't appear to be much that will help with my own family yet, but I enjoyed poking around on terms like "Ruthenian" and "Greek Catholic" (my kind was very suspicious during WWI!). See below for one example of a few fellows vouching for one of their church members. Another feature that I particularly appreciated is that names of sponsors on naturalizations are frequently indexed (in addition to the person petitioning for naturalization), so you might get lucky and turn up an ancestor vouching for a buddy.

If you want to entertain yourself while getting a feel for the site, try searching on "evading draft" and "draft evasion" to see records of investigations of those who allegedly or actually tried to avoid the WWI draft.

Boy, if 2007 keeps up at this pace, this is going to be a watershed year for genealogy!

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One Little, Two Little . . . Ten Little Indians

I'm torn on this one.

Innovative Teacher Uses DNA Test To Teach History Lesson (check out the video, if you're interested)

I'm a proponent of teachers using DNA tests to help kids grasp genetics and/or history -- and I applaud this fellow's initiative -- but this is the line that made me think twice:

"I found out that I was 10 percent Native American, out of my last 100 ancestors, and that was a complete shock to me," said Lincoln.

That quote tells me that Mr. Lincoln doesn't understand genetic genealogy or the specific test he had his students take. They apparently took DNA Print's BioGeographical test (aka AncestryByDNA). It's a fun test, but folks tend to take the results as absolute and they're not. And I have no clue where he got the "100 ancestors" bit. That seems to suggest that the test somehow samples your ancestors going back 5 generations, but arbitrarily stops at the 38th ancestor (out of 64) in that 5th generation.

Anyway, kudos to Mr. Lincoln for doing the testing and getting his students interested, but here's hoping he does a little studying before doing the same with next year's class!

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More Orphan Rescuers

Some of you may have read my articles about what I call "orphan heirloom rescues" and those who do the rescuing. I write a lot about them for Ancestry's online newsletter, as well as the Ancestry Magazine (in fact, I have a column called Found! in the latter). Check here to get a feel for the topic if this is all new to you.

Anyway, I came across this article today -- Finders, Not Keepers-- about a pair of fellows who do the same thing and wanted to share it with you because I think it's pretty terrific. Incidentally, for those of you who follow super-rescuer, Marge Rice's efforts, here's the latest Marge-o-Meter. Pretty impressive, eh?

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Factual Fiction

For avid genealogical readers or wannabe family history writers, Alice Munro's latest -- The View from Castle Rock -- is a must-read. Featuring a series of short stories based on her family history, she makes it clear up front that much is imagined. She's very open about having taken liberties and inventing tales, but if you deliberately look, you can see the backbone of her research underneath. I even went so far as to poke around some records to see if I could verify any events, places and dates -- and I could!

Not that we all need to aspire to write at Munro's level -- or anywhere near it -- but this is a good book to snag if you're thinking of putting some of your family stories down on paper. And if you've got Scotland-to-Canada roots like Munro, you'll be all the more fascinated.

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Debra's Stoned

From the commentary on my article on Tombstone Imagery, it looks as if I'm not the only one fascinated by photos on tombstones.

But Debra J. Richardson is more obsessed than most -- in a good way. Check out all these photos she's taken of ceramic images on tombstones. And while you're there, take time to explore the rest of Stoned, her site of cemetery photography. I especially liked the portion she's called "Sets." Lots of interesting stuff in there. And I could totally relate to the "Reflections" section. I have plenty of shots like that in my collection -- although not on purpose! Props to Debra for making this its own art form!

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Moving without Moving

For those of us with Eastern European roots, this applies on the countRy level, too.

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Family Tree Magazine on Geni & Pet Peeves

I was just about to write a review of the new social networking launch, Geni, when I received my weekly issue of Family Tree Magazine's Newsletter -- and it said just about everything I was planning to say. Geni sports a super-easy user interface, but if you're into genealogy, a lot of questions will start popping into your head as soon as you jump in. See what Diane Haddad has to say in this issue.

Incidentally, even if you're not interested in learning more about Geni, you might want to take a peek because this is a great newsletter. And while you're at it, you might want to add to two cents' worth to the forum on genealogical pet peeves!

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Things You'll Wish You Didn't Know about Me

Well, this is a new one on me. There's a game of tag going around the genealogical blogging world and it seems I'm it now since I just got tagged by Steve Danko. Apparently, I'm supposed to share 5 things that most folks probably don't know about me -- and once I'm done, I'm supposed to tag 5 other bloggers. I've been writing so long that I've already shared a lot about myself, but let's see if I can come up with a few surprises.

1. When I was a kid, I used to love square-dancing (allemand left that corner lady, do-si-do and a right and left grand, and weave that ring!).

2. I've been to all seven continents. This photo shows me with my niece Lindsay, some penguins, a ship, and lots of guano in Antarctica.

3. I once thought the Bay City Rollers were cool, but in my defense, I'm pretty sure it was the tartan that mesmerized me.

4. In the "and now for something completely different" realm, I once ran a World Bank project to improve the quality of steel production in India. Seems like a former life.

5. I was (and probably still am) the geekiest of the geeky. When I was 11 years old, I was given an assignment to write about an imaginary trip to France -- and still remember the look my poor teacher gave me when I handed in my 95-page paper. When she got wind of it, my stepmother suggested that I be sent for psychiatric evaluation (and yeah, I belonged to the chess club, too).

OK, now it's my turn to pass it on. There are a lot of folks I'd like to tag who have already been tagged, so I'm going to take a chance and try for some uber-busy people. I can't promise that any of these folks will play, but I'm calling out Juliana Smith of Ancestry.com's 24/7 Family History Circle, Kimberly Powell of About Genealogy, Og of Roots Television's Og Blog, Rick Crume (aka The Internet Guy), and DearMYRTLE. (update: all 5 played!)

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Join Me on St. Patty's Day in Baltimore!

It's appropriate that as I write this, I'm wearing my "Irish DNA Inside" t-shirt (just click the image below if you think you might like one -- for that matter, click on "Genetics & DNA" and check out all the other options -- Swedish, Polish, Spanish, etc.

Just wanted to remind anyone who lives in or near Baltimore that I'll be speaking on genetic genealogy at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on March 17th. Tom Kemp will also be there speaking about GenealogyBank, so it's a two-fer! I've celebrated St. Patrick's Day in Baltimore before, so I'm looking forward to having an opportunity for a repeat performance!

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Maryland Library's Most Wanted

Here's a cool idea for other libraries to emulate. The Enoch Pratt Free Library had a bunch of photos in its collection that it couldn't identify, so it put a bunch of them online and asked for help. Those who solve any of the mysteries are credited on the site as "master sleuths." Sort of like a targeted DeadFred. And it must work because the majority of the photos have now been identified.

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I'm Ancestry.com's New CFH!

Well, "renowned" is an adjective I'll have to spend the rest of my life trying to earn, but I have indeed signed on as Ancestry.com's Chief Family Historian.

I think this is an incredible time to be a genealogist -- especially with the twin revolutions of the Internet and DNA -- and I feel privileged to be a part of all this. Just about everything I do for a living would have been inconceivable a decade ago, so I count my lucky stars every day that I was born at the right time!

I don't know how many of you all remember "Horton Hears a Who!" (which is being made into a movie incidentally). Remember all the whos of Whoville? "We are here. We are here! WE ARE HERE!"

Well, that's the way I feel about genealogy. There are millions of us -- all pursuing one of the most popular hobbies on the planet -- but you hear relatively little about us. In my new role as Ancestry.com's CFH, I'm hoping to have the opportunity to let folks know that WE ARE HERE! Wish me luck!

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Dr. Gates on African-American Genealogy on NPR

I just listened to the interview with Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. on NPR's Talk of the Nation. The topic is Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters, and you won't be surprised to hear that it focuses on his experience with the PBS special on Oprah's roots (congrats to Tony Burroughs for his stellar performance on the show, as well!). The interview is only about 16 minutes long and a great listen since Dr. Gates is so engaging -- and of course, his topic is so fascinating!

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Goat on a Cow on Radio

I think it was probably a recent orphan heirloom article of mine in Ancestry Magazine called Rain Goat that made Kaisa Kyläkoski think to tell me about this radio show, and I'm very glad she did.

I just finished listening to this "Detective Stories" episode of New York Public Radio's Radio Lab, and it's a kick. The particular story that Kaisa wrote about is indeed called Goat on a Cow and involves a lost packet of letters that were found strewn along a road -- thanks to the aforementioned goat and cow. It's an orphan heirloom case told in a casual style. Any show that includes sleuthing and mentions of nonchalant cows is a winner to me, and I suspect you'll enjoy it too.

As a bonus, you can also listen to the other two pieces on ancient garbage (turns out the Egyptians were reading stuff a little racier than the Bible -- and oh, by the way, 666 might be the wrong number to fear) and Genghis Khan's DNA. The icing on the cake is that the last piece features DNA-guru Spencer Wells and Tatiana Zerjal (great name, terrific geneticist and charming guest) and provides a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to drive around Asia asking strangers for their DNA (I did the same on a much smaller scale in Slovakia and thoroughly enjoyed it).

Many thanks to Kaisa for letting me know about this!

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Letters of Anne Frank's Father Found

All I can say is WOW. Imagine what they're reveal:


Houston Chronicle

I hope that any issues of ownership can be quickly resolved, so they'll be made available to all. Makes you want to drop what you're doing and head to the nearest archives, doesn't it?

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The Military and DNA

This article explains about the U.S. military's use of DNA to identify servicemen -- both present-day and from past conflicts. I'm involved with the work mentioned toward the end -- locating relatives with the same mtDNA as soldiers still unaccounted for from WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

DNA Registry Unlocks Key to Fallen Servicemembers' Identities

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Yo Yo Ma Gets His DNA On

Now cellist Yo Yo Ma and Chicago school kids are getting into the act with genetic genealogy (aka genetealogy)!

Students trace ancestry through DNA

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She's Got It Backwards

Chris Dunham of The Genealogue recently posted The Downside of Digitization about an upcoming interview with Emily Heinlen on the Irish Roots Cafe.

Ms. Heinlen recently wrote a paper arguing that digitized genealogy databases have hurt tourism in Ireland. In my mind, she has it entirely backwards.

First, speaking as someone of half-Irish origin, I have to say that Ireland records -- regrettably -- are still among the most under-digitized in the world. They are not nearly as accessible as English, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, Danish or other records.

But more to the point, I think even the limited availability of records encourages travel to Ireland. I went to Ireland back in 2003 in search of one of my 6 Irish lines (you can read about it here -- and yes, I benefited from the dearth of fellow travelers, but as Chris pointed out, that had more to do with 9/11 than any databases), and I'll be going back again this year -- this time for a Nelligan reunion.

These trips are more because of what I've been able to learn than in spite of it. Who wants to go to another country on a random roots quest -- say, armed with nothing more than a county of origin -- and hope to stumble into your heritage? If you know a thing or two, such as the town or parish your family is from, I think you're much more apt to visit. In fact, my own rule of thumb is that I only get to visit for reunions or when I've uncovered a new townland of origin.

So I'll listen, but she's going to have to be mighty persuasive!

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Way back in the dark ages of 1996, I think I was a bit of a pioneer when I took 40 people whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents had come from Osturna (the place of origin of all the Smolenyaks in the world) over there for a village-wide family reunion. Now all of this has become increasingly common -- roots travel in general, trips to Eastern Europe, and group trips of this nature.

A definite sign of the times is this press release:

LithuaniaVisits.com Offers New Family History Tours

Sounds like a great resource for those in search of their Lithuanian roots! If that's you, why not check out LithuaniaVisits and maybe make some summer plans?

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Time for Another Roots Cruise!

Want to take a break and learn some new genealogical techniques? The check out the Wholly Genes 2007 cruise! See you on board!

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Upcoming Events

If you plan to be near any of the events where I'll be speaking, I would love to meet you. It's always a kick for me when folks mention that they read this newsletter, my blog, Ancestry Daily News or whatever, so don't be shy about introducing yourself!

For more information on these events, please see my Events Calendar. And if you're interested in scheduling me, just click here.

  • February 24, 2007 - St. Charles, IL - DuPage County Genealogy Society Conference - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones" and "Jump-Starting Your Eastern European Research"
  • March 17, 2007 - Baltimore, MD - Enoch Pratt Free Library - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • April 13-14, 2007 - Oconomowoc, WI - Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Gene-a-Rama - "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Building a Village Based Community," "Remembering Our Ancestors," "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy"
  • April 21, 2007 - Boston, MA - New England Historic Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt" and "Right Annie, Wrong Annie"
  • April 26-29, 2007 - Hartford, CT - The New England Regional Genealogical Consortium Conference - "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "Beyond DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options"
  • June 8-10, 2007 - Burbank, CA - Southern California Genealogical Society - "Reverse Genealogy Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Remembering Our Ancestors" and "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • August 4, 2007 - Newport News, VA - Tidewater Genealogical Society - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • August 15-18, 2007 - Fort Wayne, IN - FGS/ACPL Conference: Meeting at the Crossroads of America - "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Reverse Genealogy: Techniques for Finding Your Lost Loved Ones," "Trace Your Roots with DNA" and "The Quest for Ellis Island Annie"
  • September 29, 2007 - Manassas, VA - Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC) for Genealogy and Local History - "Trace Your Roots with DNA"
  • October 4-6, 2007 - Marshalltown, IA - Iowa Genealogical Society Annual Fall Conference - "The Quest for Annie Moore," "Find That Obituary! Online Newspaper Research," "Maximizing Your Results from the Ellis Island Database," "Trace Your Roots with DNA," "Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options" and "Cases That Made My Brain Hurt"
  • October 28-November 4, 2007 - 2007 Genealogy Conference and Cruise - hosted by Wholly Genes Software - Speaking topics TBD.
  • April 12, 2008 - Pittsburgh, PA - Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society - Details TBD.

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Please forward this newsletter to your family and friends who are interested in genealogy -- thank you!

Wishing you an abundance of genealogical serendipity!
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak


Note: You are receiving this because you have demonstrated an interest (e.g., you have a story in one of my books, applied for a grant, attended previous events, etc.) or subscribed via my website, but please let me know if you do not want to receive any further emails, and I will promptly remove you from my list. And rest assured, this is my personal list and not shared with anyone else! Thanks, Megan

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