He Hung the Moon


, , , ,

Ken Oliver and me
Fall, 1958
Dover Massachusetts

Damdaddy was my Mum’s father. (I couldn’t say Grandaddy. It stuck.) Today would have been his 121st birthday and when this picture was taken, he was a little younger than I am now. He was a quiet, intensely supportive and loving presence in my life for my first eighteen years, and remains with me still.

We’re on the front lawn of my grandparents’ little Cape style house in the outskirts of Boston. You can just make out the roses twined around the split rail fence behind us. Damdaddy became quite the gardener during his twenty years in this house, and much of the front yard was a huge (at least to my small eyes) flower bed. I especially remember bleeding hearts and snap dragons. And the sweet tasting honeysuckle vine.

The whole neighborhood smelled of the pine trees that towered over us and the shrieking of blue jays was constant. The back yard was shaded by the large pines, and in the spring it was sprinkled with lilies of the valley and violets. There was a freestanding garage (my British grandfather always put the emphasis on the first syllable–GAR-age) and I still remember its smell too.

Inside was the smell of his wonderful cooking, the sound of the BBC news on the radio in the morning while the coffee perked in the Pyrex coffee pot. In the evening there was a crackling fire in the living room fireplace. During the weeks before Christmas, he and I would go down to the basement, where we’d brush racks of Granny’s fruitcakes with brandy and port–another smell I remember well.

And a dog. There was always a dog. During my childhood there was a succession of boxers–Judy, Penny, and Jenny. Devoted dog lovers, my grandparents had always been firm training their dogs, but as they aged, the rules relaxed. By the time Jenny came along, there were (heaven forbid!) even tidbits fed from the table!

The Lavins next door had a pasture with sheep and one cranky goat. Willy got loose every now and then and would end up in Damdaddy’s garden, munching on his flowers–never a good thing. I was a big fan.

My most precious childhood memories are of this man in this place, and my sensory memories here are powerful. And yes, he did hang the moon. Happy birthday, Damdaddy.

Kenneth Stuart Oliver (October 28, 1898-January 26, 1975)

The Brick Wall: Oliver or Oliphant?


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

For years now I’ve been trying to sort out a line of Olivers from Caithness in the Highlands of Scotland. Oliver is my mother’s maiden name, and this is the branch of my family to which I have the strongest ties.

The mystery includes:

  • A great great grandfather, David Oliver, who appears to have been born out of wedlock;
  • Tales of a teenage shepherd from the south fathering a baby and vanishing;
  • A child raised by his grandparents while his mother started a new family;
  • And now a DNA connection to a line of Oliphants who moved from Caithness to Australia.

David Oliver, the son

My 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver, was born in Latheron, Caithness between 1844 and 1848 and died in 1923 in Edinburgh. Although I haven’t found a birth or baptismal certificate for him, his marriage certificate to Esther Henderson (30 Dec 1864, Thurso) listed David’s father as George Oliver, police officer, and his mother as Elizabeth Oliver, maiden surname Sutherland. David’s 1923 death certificate lists his parents as George Oliver (Shepherd) and Betsy Oliver, afterwards Hamilton nee Sutherland.

David Oliver married Esther Henderson, 30 December 1864 in Thurso, listing his father as George Oliver, Police Officer, and his mother as Elizabeth Oliver, maiden surname Sutherland
David’s death certificate refers to his father, George Oliver, as a shepherd, and again names his mother as Betsy Oliver, afterwards Hamilton, maiden surname Sutherland

But…family lore is that George and Elizabeth were never married, that George may have been a young shepherd from the south. There were Olivers who moved to the Highlands from the border counties in the south of Scotland and worked as shepherds. Some may have stayed in the area, while others moved away in a generation or two.

Elizabeth Sutherland, the mother

After giving birth to David about 1848, Elizabeth Sutherland married a James Hamilton in September, 1849, and had eight more children, living in Bower, 20 miles from her parents’ home in Latheron. The 1851 census lists her son, 4 year old David Oliver, living with Elizabeth’s parents (his grandparents), George and Margaret (Sandison) Sutherland in Latheron.

George Oliver, the father?

Meanwhile, the father. There is a George Oliver who fits the general profile. He was born in the south about 1833, and was living in Thurso by 1841. There’s no documented connection I’ve found between this George Oliver and Elizabeth Sutherland other than David’s marriage and death certificates. George married a Johan McKenzie in Thurso in 1853, five to seven years after my David Oliver was born, and four years after Elizabeth married James Hamilton.

Ship Vocalist Approaching the River Mersey, Liverpool, after 1856
George and Johan Oliver arrived in New South Wales on this ship on 10 October 1856.

George and Johan sailed on the Ship Vocalist to New South Wales, Australia, with their first two children in 1856. I’ve found plenty of information about George in Australia (many children, another marriage), and he could be my guy, but nothing confirms that, and then there are the Oliphants…

Oliphants and DNA

I’ve had quite a few DNA matches who are descendants of an Essie Oliphant, born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1879, daughter of a George Oliphant, born in Wick, Caithness in 1848, son of a William Oliphant, also from Wick, born 1821. I can’t find a George Oliphant the right age, and I can’t figure out any connection beyond the DNA.

If it weren’t for the DNA matches, I’d be fairly comfortable with the assumptions I’ve made about George Oliver, but the Oliphant DNA…

The Brick Wall

The key pieces I’m trying to answer are:

  • Who was David Oliver’s father?
  • If it wasn’t George Oliver born 1833, was it an Oliphant?
  • Which Oliphant? (I’ve been making an Oliphant tree, but just can’t connect it to my people).
  • And why does David’s 1864 marriage certificate list his mother as Elizabeth Oliver when she’d been married to James Hamilton for over 10 years by then?

I would eagerly welcome any advice or information!


  • George Sutherland (1791-1873) and Margaret Sandison (1794-1882) – 4th great grandparents
  • Elizabeth Sutherland (1822-1908) – 3rd great grandmother and George Oliver (abt. 1833-1920) – 3rd great grandfather??
  • David Oliver (abt. 1848-1923) and Esther Henderson (1833-1906) – 2nd great grandparents
  • Daniel Oliver (1870-1953) great grandfather
  • Kenneth Oliver (1898-1975) grandfather
  • My mum
  • Me

A Magpie During Family History Month–So Much to Do!


, , , , , , ,

Oh, my! Family History Month is here, and I need to send my intentions out into the universe. I have eleven–count ’em–unfinished drafts of blog posts and lots of other family history projects in mid-stream. I’ve taken several research trips and have information to organize. Lots to do!

I’ve just commited to Janine Adams’s 30 x 30 challenge to spend 30 minutes on genealogy research every day this month. That should help, but I need to focus! I have to confess that I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to family history projects. Oh, look! A shiny thing! Let me play with Ackworth School, Yorkshire records for awhile. Wait–there’s an Ozarks Genealogical Society?! Or maybe I should do a post about my 3rd great aunt and the Hawaiian Mission in the 19th century. This might be a good time to join the Caithness Family History Society and explore those Oliver family roots. Or maybe I’ll look at family paintings. A blog post about all the dogs in our family would be fun, too!

So how do you stay focused in your family research? And what will you do to celebrate Family History month? So many stories to find; so many stories to share!

Happy 100!


, , , , , , ,

My lovely mother-in-law, Natalie (Munson) Brengle, would have been 100 years old today. Here she is as an 18 or 19 year old in a fashion show in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1937 or 1938. She only became more poised and elegant as the years passed. We miss her and raise a glass in her memory today!

Back to School


, , , , , , , ,

I don’t know any details about this adorable picture, but my dad, (Billy in those days) is the little guy with the polka dot tie. Too cute! Seems appropriate on the first day of school. Probably taken in Kansas about 1937.


  • William Edward Stephenson Hare (1933-1961) – my dad

Mother’s Day


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Just a few images in the spirit of the day. Love these mothers, one and all!

Mum and me heading home from a family visit to Kansas. Always on an adventure! Tulsa Airport, 1963.
Grandma, Esther Jane (Miller) Stephenson (later Hare), with my dad, Bill. He was her only child. Kansas, 1934.
My Granny, proud mum, Elsie (Mills) Oliver with my mum, Celia, at her Goucher College graduation, Towson, Maryland, 1954.
Great grandmother Alice (Sheely) Stephenson at her home with my toddler-sized Dad, Bill. My grandfather looked so much like her! Augusta, Kansas, about 1935.
One of my all-time favorite pictures–Stella Lee (Owen) Miller was the mother of my Grandma, Esther Jane. This image was taken before Grandma was born in 1914 with her sisters (left to right) Marjorie, Nell, and Thelma. Coffeyville, Kansas, ca. 1908.
Emily (Wright) Oliver, my Mum’s paternal grandmother, with a little twinkle in her eye, possibly because of the two dogs sitting next to her. Daniel and Emily Oliver Orphanage. Ras el M’etn, Lebanon, 1931.
My great grandmother, Mary (Hill) Mills, known to her family as Dear, standing behind (left to right) Elsie (my Granny), Audrey, Nicholas Snowden Hill (her father), Mary Carroll, and Jimmy. Baltimore, ca. 1909.
And my one and only mother more recently. Salem, Massachusetts, 2018.

Armistice Day Family Remembrance


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Oliver, Kenneth Friends Ambulance

Kenneth Stuart Oliver’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)

One hundred years ago, when the Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th ending World War I, Kenneth Oliver, my grandfather, was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, headquartered in Dunkirk. He had arrived in France the previous year, a baby-faced eighteen year old, and had undoubtedly experienced enough of war to last him a lifetime.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Ken and his brothers, Doug and Hugh, were students at the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. They were sons of British Quaker missionaries in Lebanon, raised and educated in a pacifist tradition. Joining the military would not have been an option for them, yet like many young men and women raised in the Society of Friends, they must have felt a strong need to be of service during the terrible war.

In response, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was created by British volunteers in 1914 as a way for Quakers and others to provide medical aid and other assistance to civilians and members of the military during the war without compromising their commitment to non-violence. Over 1000 volunteers served in France, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1919, driving ambulances, assisting in hospitals and providing aid for civilians evacuating the war zones.

SS Aurania Cunard

RMS Aurania (Image from http://www.wrecksite.eu)

Following his sophomore year at Haverford College, Ken left to join the FAU. He departed New York on the RMS Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on September 2, 1917. (Incidentally, a few months later the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland on February 3, 1918, heading from Liverpool to New York). It was customary for new volunteers to spend a month at an FAU training camp in Birminghamshire before being assigned to a unit.


Oliver, Kenneth Friends Ambulance personnel card p. 2

Ken’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)

FAU convoy Cadbury Research Library

FAU ambulance convoy (Image from Cadbury Research Library)

Ken arrived at FAU headquarters in Dunkirk on October 10th. His personnel card lists a variety of assignments and job titles—chief orderly, chief clerk, stores buyer, and primarily driver. He served as a driver in an ambulance convoy like the one pictured here, and he was listed as being based in Dunkirk in August 2018, when the FAU headquarters were bombed. Family lore has it that one of my grandfather’s assignments was to inspect the sanitary conditions of French military brothels, but of course this doesn’t appear on his personnel card…




FAU Headquarters Dunkirk after bombing Aug 1918 Cadbury Research Library

FAU headquarters, Dunkirk, after bombing, August 1918 (Image from Cadbury Research Library)

Oliver, Douglas Friends Ambulance personnel card 1

Alan Douglas Oliver’s FAU personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)

Uncle Doug, Ken’s elder brother, left Haverford and joined the FAU in May 1918, nearly a year after Ken’s arrival. He sailed to Liverpool on the RMS Carpathia, renowned for having taken on passengers from the sinking Titanic in 1912. Like the Aurania, the Carpathia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland just two months after Doug’s arrival.

Both young men remained in France for several months after the armistice, with Doug departing in January 1919 and Ken following in February. They rejoined their classmates at Haverford for that spring semester and both graduated the following year.


Haverford College Yearbook, 1920

I never heard my grandfather speak of the war, but surely it had to have changed the course of his life. I have to believe it played a role in his choice to become a doctor. He went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University and then a career practicing and teaching medicine in Lebanon and the U.S.

Evocative Treasures


, , , , , , , , ,

I like my family history tangible. I want to see the places where my ancestors lived, learned, worked, and worshiped. I need to know what their faces looked like, read their very own handwriting, surround myself with their art, and if possible, I want to touch their stuff. Or better yet, wear it!

This month I joined in an Instagram “genealogy photo a day” challenge, and today’s theme was “my favorite heirloom.” Well! I picked one, but it was hard, and left me wanting to share more, so I think I’ll revisit this topic again soon.

Ken and Elsie Oliver c. 1925 engagement photo

This image of my maternal grandparents, Elsie Mills (1899-1993) and Kenneth Oliver (1898-1975), was taken before they were married in Baltimore in 1925, and has always been one of my favorites. He was 26 and a young doctor, and she was 25, a talented painter, and daughter of one of his medical school professors. I remember her regal bearing and sometimes haughty expression, but I don’t ever remember seeing him with such a dreamy expression.

This engagement portrait hangs in my house and Granny’s spectacular jacket hangs now in my closet. The cloth beneath the metallic mesh (which is very heavy!) is gray blue with a black lining.  Very 1920s, very Art Deco, and very Granny. My favorite heirloom. At least for today…