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The Math Behind a Family Tree: The Cruel Side of Genealogy

I have been actively working on my family’s genealogy for the past thirty-three years. In that time, I have uncovered some amazing facts and have learned more about my family than I ever thought possible. So why is it that, after all these years of hard work, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to discover?

As I have pondered on this question, I have had to come to grips with the duplicity of my my relationship with “Miss Genealogy”.

You see, I love Genealogy. From the first day I set my eyes on her, I was captivated by the hope and promise she tempted me with. And, indeed, she has been very good to me. She has inspired me; and she has opened my eyes to a greater understanding of myself. And I, in turn, have been motivated to work hard and please her with the rewards of my labor. Sadly, though, my efforts never seems to be enough to please Miss Genealogy; and she constantly reminds me of my inadequacy.

Putting my tongue-in-cheek humor aside, the reality I am trying to express about genealogy is that the more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. The more you discover, the more missing links you find, the more family mysteries you solve, the more you realize is yet undone. Simply put, genealogy is a never ending endeavor. And the reality of this lies in what I call “the math behind a family tree”.

The simple mathematical formula of genealogy is that with each generation backwards you look, the number of ancestors waiting to be discovered doubles. Each person has two biological parents. They have double the amount of grandparents: four. They have double the amount of great-grandparents: eight. They have double the amount of great-great-grandparents: sixteen. And double begets more doubles, to the point of infinity.

And this, my friends, is the math behind genealogy. It is why I fret that my ancestor sleuthing is never going to end. Alas, all my effort will never be enough to please Miss Genealogy!!

I stumbled across this realization one day after celebrating the discovery of my first set of tenth-great-grandparents. After the euphoria of my discovery wore off, I set about to figure out how much work lie before me to find all of my other tenth-great-grandparents. I’m embarrassed to say, I couldn’t do the math in my head. Putting pen to paper, I was shocked at the size of the number.

And the answer is… (drumroll please)… 4,096! (Gulp!)

After coming to this shocking realization, the conversation in my head quickly moved on to a discussion with self as to whether the glass is half empty or half full.

The moral of the story is that genealogy can indeed be a numbers game. And if one’s motivation is simply to fill pedigree charts with names, then one’s measure of success lies in how many individuals are in his or her family tree. My challenge to genealogists, however, is to change the focus from the quantity of names in a family tree to the quality of information in a family history. That is to say, the legacy of one’s tenth-great-grandparents lies in their personalities, their triumphs and struggles, their dreams and their disappointments. Learning these things will help us discover more about ourselves. And yes, all my previous humor aside, this is what will lead to a happy and rewarding relationship with Miss Genealogy.

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “The Math Behind a Family Tree: The Cruel Side of Genealogy”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 30, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogical Research after Your OWN Death

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To an outsider, genealogy must seem like an inherently morbid pastime. After all, genealogists are obsessed with death records, obituaries, cemeteries, gravestones, estate documents, inheritances, eulogies, death masks, etc., etc.

The truth of the matter is, any form of historical research is a backwards-looking exercise designed to understand and document the past. And yes, death records, obituaries and the like can provide valuable clues in such research. But as a historian and genealogist, have you considered your own demise? Will your own descendants someday have a difficult time piecing together the details of your life because you spent so much time researching and documenting the lives of your ancestors that you forgot to document your own life story? And what of all your research… all the years and decades you spent uncovering your family’s past… all the records you have accumulated… all the old photographs you have discovered… all the boxes of priceless information you have saved??? What will happen to these valued possessions after you are gone?

Following are some thoughts to consider.

Value is Subjective

As a genealogist and family historian, my research files, antique photographs and old family artifacts are some of my most valued possessions. Sadly, though, I have come to learn that not everyone places a similar value on such things.

Years ago, for example, I was saddened to learn that a distant cousin, who had been in possession of some old family photo albums that dated back to the early 1800s, had given away some of these albums to friends. Worse yet, he gave them away to friends as gag gifts when they turned 50 (joking that his friends were becoming as old and antique as the photos in the albums)! Upon learning this, I was horrified at the thought of having forever lost some priceless photos that were of common ancestors I share with this cousin.

In another line of my family, after the death of one of my great-great grandfathers in 1875, his widow turned to her brother for help in managing the family’s extensive land holdings and businesses. In an effort to organize and “simplify” life for his sister, this well-intentioned brother destroyed by fire generations of old family records that he deemed to be of no more value. Gone forever was valuable evidence of the family’s past in Ireland and of all that my great-great grandfather and his father before him had done to build a working plantation on thousands of acres in Maryland.

The moral of this story is to make sure that others understand the value you place on your genealogy and historical records and to take proactive steps to preserve them before they meet a similar fate at the hands of a family member who simply sees them as redundant and useless records of the past.

Focus on Preserving a Legacy

One way to improve the odds that your research materials will survive is to change the focus of your research. The reason many family members see genealogy as boring is because family group sheets, pedigree charts, birth certificates and death certificates ARE boring. And if such things are the bulk of what you have to show for your genealogy hobby, you run the risk that someone else will see them as no different than your completed sudoku and crossword puzzles. If you really want others to see value in your research efforts, you need to bring your research to life. This means that you need to flesh out the details of not just when your ancestors were born and when they died, but how the lived, why they made the decisions they did, what their beliefs and values were, etc. These are the things that make one’s ancestry a heritage or a legacy. Most people want to understand why they have the traits they do, why they look and act the way the do; and a historian who is able to unlock these secrets from the past stands a much greater chance that his or her research will survive the test of time.

Publish Your Results

Most cities and states have historical societies (following is a good list of some of the better known ones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_societies). Many also have genealogical societies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogical_societies). There are, likewise, many national historical and genealogical societies, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Most of these societies typically publish monthly or quarterly journals; and they welcome submissions for publication that are well researched, well documented and of interest to the focus of their organizations. I should add, getting published in such a journal doesn’t require having a famous ancestor that you can write about. Rather, it requires a focus on historical accuracy and being able to share information on how residents, famous or not, lived in historical times in those communities that are the focus of the historical society in question. Again, this is the difference between simple dates of birth and death and a historical narrative that constitutes a legacy. In any case, getting published is a way to preserve the results of your research (as historical and genealogical societies maintain libraries and are passionate about their preservation efforts).

Donate Work of Historical Value to a Library

Depending on the scope and focus of your research collection, some libraries might be interested in accepting your work into their permanent collection. Historical and genealogical societies are typically more interested in historical works than a municipal library, but there are a number of local libraries that do maintain historical archives. Certain college and university libraries may also be interested. There are two important points to remember, however, when attempting to donate your research to a library. First, above all else, be aware that most libraries want organized, bound volumes that are well documented and likely to be of value to their members. (i.e., Don’t expect a library to be interested in a box of disorganized, uncatalogued papers, especially if they are merely family group sheets, pedigree charts and other personal notes.) Secondly, if your goal is entrust your research work to a library, you might find that it is necessary to break your collection into smaller parts and to spread those parts amongst different libraries. (i.e., The New England Historic Genealogical Society might be interested in artifacts and historical writings on your colonial Massachusetts ancestors, but they are less likely to be interested in information on your pioneer ancestors who settled in Oklahoma.)

Identify a Family Successor

Of course, even if you happen to donate copies of some of your materials to a historical library, if you are like most genealogists, you are hoping a member of your own family will volunteer to someday takeover your materials and continue on with your research where you leave off. If your goal truly is the preservation of your materials, however, this is not something you want to leave to chance after your death.

My suggestion would be to instead emulate what some of the best run corporations do. That may seem like an odd comment on the surface; but keep in mind that well-run companies are interested in preserving their corporate culture into infinity. And the leadership of such well-run corporations typically places the responsibility of succession on their own executives. That is to say, before someone can be promoted to the next level, managers of well-run corporations are expected to identify someone whom they feel would be an appropriate successor to take over their job.

In a similar manner, my suggestion to genealogists is that you proactively identify someone who would be both capable AND proud to take on your materials and work. As a word of caution, however, don’t assume that this individual will necessarily be one of your own children. It is natural to want to pass on old photographs and family artifacts to your own offspring; but doing so runs the risk that these artifacts won’t be safeguarded to your standards or, worse yet, that they would be passed on to yet other heirs who don’t value them at all. My challenge to you would be to instead find someone who shares your passion with history. Interestingly, this shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds. After all, similar personality traits typically do appear in families across multiple generations. Most often, though, they seem to appear in a cross-step fashion to nieces, nephews, and children of cousins.

Pass Materials on Before Your Demise

Regardless of who you identify as an appropriate successor to your materials and work, however, it is important to either pass these materials on before your ultimate demise or to make sure that this individual AND your immediate family members are in agreement as to what you wish to take place AFTER your death. And keep in mind that this isn’t just a matter of passing on the ubiquitous boxes that we genealogist all have. If you have electronic files, you need to plan for those as well. This will require passing on copies of those (hopefully organized) electronic files AND making sure that your successor also has access to your genealogy websites and online profiles and family trees. (i.e., Make sure that your successor knows of such online sites AND has the required passwords to take them over and maintain them!)

Disseminate Select Copies of Materials to all Family Members

If you are in agreement with me that passing on a legacy is more than simply passing on a list of who begat whom, then you will surely see the value in passing on multiple copies of your work. Today, there are so many options available for printing bound copies of photo books, genealogy books and other printed materials. Simply put, if it’s worth knowing, it’s worth printing and sharing. And if cost is a hindrance, don’t hesitate to seek donations, where appropriate, from other family members.

Don’t Overlook Your Own Story

Lastly, I encourage you to not overlook your own life story. If you are like me, you have struggled for years to put together some kind of understanding of who your ancestors were, how they lived, and what they believed. Would this task not have been easier if our ancestors had left us more information in their own words? Don’t leave your descendants in the dark about your own life. Write it down; and pass it on!

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogy after Your OWN Death”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 28, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

How Cloud Computing Has Revolutionized Genealogy

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You have likely heard the term “cloud computing” before; but perhaps you have wondered what exactly it is and how it affects you.

It may be a relatively new term, but make no mistake about it… “the cloud” and cloud-based technology solutions are dramatically changing the way data is stored and shared around the globe. And yes, it’s impact is being felt in the world of genealogy too.

So What Exactly is Cloud Computing?

Forget about technology for a moment and think about clouds in nature. What exactly are those white, puffy things in the sky? Well, in the simplest of terms, they are water storage and transportation devices. Moisture is transported from the earth to clouds by way of evaporation; and clouds, in turn, store and transport that moisture somewhere else and ultimately send it back down to earth in the form of rain. Yes, this explanation is rather simple and unscientific; but is accurate nonetheless.

One can explain cloud computing in an equally unscientific but nonetheless accurate manner. That is to say, those imaginary cloud thingies in cyberspace are simply storage and transportation devices — except that they store and transport data instead of moisture. In more technical terms, when you and I interact with “the cloud”, we send data from our computer (i.e., evaporation) and store it in offsite servers (i.e. the cloud). From there, it is transported virtually anywhere in the world; and, ultimately, it is called “back down to earth” when we summon it to our laptop, our smartphone, or our tablet.

The biggest difference between cloud computing and clouds in nature are the words “send” and “summon” in the previous paragraph. That is to say, we humans haven’t yet figured out how to control Mother Nature’s water transportation and storage system. We can’t press a button to cause specific water molecules to evaporate. And we can’t press a button to cause certain clouds to rain back down to earth when we want them to. We DO, however, have such control with cloud computing. We control the data. We control when and where we send it; and we control who has the ability to access it.

This really is a simple concept, right? But how exactly has this “revolutionized” genealogy? In my opinion, genealogy has been transformed by cloud computing in four major ways: the cloud provides greater portability and ease of access to one’s files; it fosters greater collaboration with other researchers; it exponentially increases the amount of original research information readily available; and it offers protection from the tragedy of fire or some other personal disaster.

Portability and Ease of Access

Years ago, when I began genealogy, personal computers didn’t exist. The closest technology came to my research were the copy machines I used to copy materials I had found in libraries and archive rooms, and the typewriter I used to type up my scribbled notes into something worth sharing with others. Years later, personal computers entered the scene and, along with software programs like Family Tree Maker, transformed the way I stored and viewed my files. Yet more years later, my research was again transformed with the advent of the internet.

Through all of these transformative changes, however, one thing remained constant: all my family tree data remained stuck on the hard drive of my clunky computer (which really wasn’t something I could bring with me to a library). Likewise, all of my published historical articles remained in PDF files or Microsoft Word on my computer’s hard drive. Perhaps more telling to how cumbersome my entire process was in the pre-cloud era, most of my files remained exactly that — files — manilla file folders full of my notes and records and stored away in file cabinets and file boxes.

Fast forward to the present… From January 2013, I have been migrating my family tree records to Ancestry.com’s online family tree and data storage system. In addition to my family tree, I have been slowly migrating copies of photos, documents, articles and other valuable information to this online system. Ancestry.com is also the manufacturer of Family Tree Maker software; but I find their online, cloud-based system to be much more efficient and more attuned to the future direction of genealogy overall. (In fact, my personal prediction is that more and more genealogists will use the cloud-based option with each passing year; and portability and ease of access are driving this trend.)

With my busy life, portability and ease of access are very important. It used to be that, to do my research, I had to be tethered to my computer or carry around a briefcase full of paper files and documents. (I did both). Today, thanks to the cloud, I am able to access my files virtually anywhere in the world, as long as I have access to wifi or a cell signal. Whether I am sitting in a library, on my living room sofa at home, on a train or in an airplane, I can use my iPad, my iPhone or my laptop to access and work on my files. And since my files are now being stored in an off-site server (“the cloud”), any changes I make using my iPad are immediately synced and accessible via my laptop or phone. (Of course, this concept of cloud computing isn’t restricted to genealogy alone. In fact, this article that you are reading now was written using cloud technology — as I wrote parts of it on my iPad, parts of it on my iphone and parts of it on my laptop!)

Collaboration

Any genealogist will tell you that some of their most meaningful discoveries actually came about through collaboration with others. Collaboration is, in fact, a critically important part of genealogy overall. In order for two or more individuals to even be able to collaborate, however, they have to first know that the other parties exist. Online forums and message boards are a convenient place to find and connect with such researchers; but forum and message board postings quickly become outdated. (Sometimes, the family records posted are inaccurate and the original poster neglects to post an update when they correct the erroneous information on their own computer. More often than this, however, the contact information for the poster has changed and it becomes impossible to track them down and communicate.)

Cloud-based systems such as Ancestry.com’s online family tree program eliminate the problem of outdated records and contact information. Yes, to be sure, there are just as many errors that inadvertently get posted to cloud-based family trees as those on a forum, message board, or family genealogy website. The difference, though, is that when an error is corrected in a cloud-based system, the updated information is immediately synced and shared with everyone else who is subscribed to that information. In addition, it is much easier in a cloud-based system to identify others who share common ancestors or research interests. (For example, by marking my files as being publicly accessible and including in my online family tree information about my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Tormey, anyone else who is looking for information on Patrick Tormey will see not only that I have his birth, marriage and death information, but that I also have an abundant supply of original documents and other records about him. This alone has revolutionized how quickly genealogists can track down such information and connect with like-minded researchers.)

Exponentially Greater Access to Research Information

In addition to the greater ease of collaboration fostered by cloud-based computing, “the cloud” has created an exponentially larger pool of information that is accessible to researchers. A perfect example of this is Google Books. When Google announced in 2004 that it was beginning to scan historical books and had a goal of digitizing 15 million volumes within a decade, libraries and publishers alike gasped in disbelief. Today, less than a full decade later, it is apparent that Google’s original ambitions were conservative — as, by 2013, they now have some 30 million books available through Google Books. And with each passing year, the amount of historical publications available online is growing exponentially larger. Also positively impacting the genealogy community, when one person finds a rare historical book with valuable family information, that information is disseminated amongst his or her network of fellow researchers instantaneously (thanks to such tools as Ancesstry.com’s “hint” notification system, which is a perfect example of cloud based technology at work).

Protection from Loss

For years, I have been petrified about the impact of a potential home fire or other personal disaster. I am sure I am not alone in this worrisome thinking. After all, when you have been researching your family’s history for as long as I have (33 years now), the thought of losing three decades of hard work is heart breaking at best. Even without a fire, flood or tornado, the risk of loss of digital files is equally worrisome. I know several individuals, for example, who lost entire family trees when their computers failed and they were not able to recover information from damaged hard drives.

Cloud-based computing eliminates these risks of loss (whether loss by natural disaster or loss by computer failure). The reason for this is that, when using a cloud-based system such as Ancestry.com, your family tree and other records aren’t stored on your local computer. Rather, they are stored off-site on Ancestry’s servers and backed up in protected, redundant locations to protect against a larger disaster affecting Ancestry.

Of course, Ancestry.com’s cloud-based system is not the only way to backup your important records. You can (and should) back up your computer files to an external hard drive. In the event your primary PC fails, this will ensure your information is secure. It will not, however, protect you in the event of a fire or natural disaster. (It goes to reason that, if a fire destroys your home and all its contents, it will also destroy your external hard drive along with the PC.) In my humble opinion, therefore, offsite storage, such as is offered with a cloud-based system, is vitally important.

While on the subject of backing up important genealogy files, I will add, it’s a smart idea to print out paper copies of any information you store electronically. Some would argue that it is even smarter to provide a complete set of your printed records to a secure repository, such as those run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In the event of some kind of future doomsday event (such as war), this would offer enhanced protection to files you have worked so hard to accumulate.

Potential Negatives to Consider

No discussion of the advantages of cloud-based computing would be objective or complete without also discussing the potential negatives.

Costs: For some, the cost of paying for cloud-based data storage and retrieval is an issue that needs to be considered. Personally, I estimate that I pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 per year for the various cloud-based subscriptions I have. And there is also the cost of the broadband wifi or cellular data transmission to be considered, depending on what type of devices one uses. Personally, I consider the benefits of cloud-based computing to be worth these costs; but this is something that each user has to determine on his or her own.

Loss of Privacy: Cloud-based computing, in and of itself, does not necessarily create a risk of loss of privacy. Many cloud-based services, however, such as Ancestry.com, offer users the choice of whether they want their family trees and other files to be public or private. There are some who, out of an abundance of caution, have elected to make their files private (fearing that someone might get access to information about their family or ancestors). Personally, I have given this issue a lot of thought, and I have come to the conclusion that the benefits of collaboration with other researchers far outweigh any potential loss of privacy I might experience by allowing my family tree files to be publicly accessible. Furthermore, I consider it important to memorialize and share my ancestors’ legacy with as many people as possible. To me, that pays ongoing tribute to my ancestors in a way I feel honors their legacy.

Vulnerability of Cloud Servers to Viruses and Hackers: Just as your own PC can be vulnerable to a virus or malicious hacker, cloud-based servers can also fall victim. It is important, therefore, to deal with a reputable provider that takes precautions against such risks and has redundant backups of all information. Being realistic about the risks posed by hackers and viruses, however, it is fair to say that you are much more likely to lose files due to a fire or because you didn’t back them up than than due to a remote, cloud-based service failing. So, in my opinion, if the goal is to manage risk, then using “the cloud” is clearly preferable to not using it.

Risk that a Service Provider Could Go Out of Business or Discontinue Certain Services: Cloud-based computing only exists as a result of advancements in technology; and the pace of change in technology is always increasing. More than technology itself, however, technology companies are constantly evolving, changing (not always for the better) and being displaced by competitors. Remember the likes of yesterday’s technology leaders, AOL, Netscape and Compuserve? If you care about preserving your genealogy files, you must consider the long-term viability of any service provider you use. Personally, this is one reason why I have decided to use Ancestry.com. They are a well-established and well-managed provider that has the ongoing financial resources to remain viable for many decades to come. (I know that many have griped about the subscription fees Ancestry.com charges — believing that they should offer their services for free or utilize an advertising-based revenue system — but it is these ongoing subscription fees that also contribute to the long-term strength and viability that I depend on them for. )

Conclusion

To be sure, there are pros and cons to cloud-computing (just as there are pros and cons with everything in life). There is no question, however, that “the cloud” has already revolutionized the field of genealogy. Looking forward, all evidence points to further growth of this technology and the benefits it offers — especially considering the growing number of users turning to cloud-based computing every year and the growing amount of research materials being being made available though such services as Google Books.

Of course, I can’t help but see the irony in this. Historians and genealogists look backwards and try to reconstruct and preserve the past; yet, today we are being helped by technology that I couldn’t have even imagined 33 years ago. It makes me optimistic about the prospects for even better genealogical research in the future; and I look forward to technology continuing to open even more doors to my family’s past.

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How Cloud Computing Has Revolutionized Genealogy”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 27, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

What Is a Legacy?

Legacy: It comes in all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds. It begs to be discovered. It cries to be preserved.

Simply put, a legacy is something passed down from the past by one’s predecessors or ancestors. It can come in the form of money; or it can come in the form of heritage — cultural identity, personal character, purpose of life. It molds our beliefs. It shapes our values. It lends meaning to who we are and what we, in turn, pass on to others.

Until it is forgotten.

It has been argued that many of our society’s ills stem from a loss of connection to our past. Families have grown apart. Entire communities have forgotten the trials and tribulations of their predecessors. Ideals our ancestors once risked their lives to achieve and protect seem to have become distant memories.

Of course, this loss of a connection to our past is not a new phenomena. After all, it was 108 years ago, in 1905, that philosopher George Santayana penned his now famous words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In my own life, my personal journey to discover the past began 33 years ago, at the age of 14. At the time, I was desperate to learn more about my grandfather, who had died 4 years earlier. I missed him terribly; and I longed for an opportunity to speak with him… to hear him tell me in his words why he believed what he did, why he had made the life decisions that he did. I sensed that my grandfather had a legacy waiting for me to piece together; and so, I began my search for the pieces to his “puzzle”.

I am pleased to report that this puzzle has taken shape far beyond anything I imagined at age 14. I have learned an enormous amount of information not only about about my grandfather, but about his own “grandfathers” before him. I feel a connection with my family’s past that, in so many ways, defines and explains who I am today.

Of course, I too will someday be gone. My challenge, therefore, is to preserve the legacy I have discovered and to pass it on to those who will come even after me. For the most part, I do this through writing historical narratives and short stories. My dream is to someday be able to write a novel on the scale of Alex Haley’s “Roots”; but, at the moment, this seems like an overwhelming task.

Over the years, as I have shared some of the family legacy I have learned, many have asked me for advice on how they can research and document their own family’s story. A common refrain I hear is that the idea of simply beginning a family tree seems as overwhelming a task as writing a Roots-like novel is for me. Many have the desire, but few know how to even begin.

It is for these individuals that I have decided to begin this Legacy Blog. Over time, I will share here some of the tips and insights I have learned over the years that other genealogists and family historians might benefit from. And yes, I will share some snippets of my writings that might inspire others to do the same. That, after all, is a part of what legacy is… a passing on of insights and life lessons that inspire thought and add meaning to life… sometimes practical… sometimes poetic… sometimes both.

I will close with some fitting words by well-read author, Erma Bombeck: “The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “What Is a Legacy?”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 24, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).