the wheel horse rider


Say it often enough, it becomes tradition. As is our four hour drive north each year so we can be “back home” for Christmas. The two lane road is alternatively hilly and flat, but consistently narrow, lacking any shoulder between pavement and prairie grass. In four hours, we have two choices of where to stop for gasoline and snacks. Twenty or thirty minutes can pass before we see another vehicle, and yet when we do stop at Ray’s One Stop in Harlowton or Eddie’s Corner after Judith Gap, suddenly we are surrounded by travelers:  three people standing in line to pay for their go-cups of  stout coffee.  Every one of us talking about the cold and the ice, the way the semi-trucks blow up snow.

Remember when?

Will, my son: Remember when we were eating at Eddie’s Corner with Gramps and I told him if I ever had a son I wanted to name him “Liam”?

We laugh. We know how this story goes. We take swigs from our water bottles, calculating the miles until the next restroom. A bag of chocolate chip cookies is passed from the back seat to the front.

Actually, Will, it isn’t pronounced Lee-um. In Ireland they pronounce it “Lum.”  My father, years ago.

Well, Gramps, but wouldn’t that be neat to continue our name but in the Irish version, Liam? My son, years ago, persisting.

Lum. It’s pronounced Lum. My father, proving beyond doubt persistence runs in the family.

And now, on our latest trip back home, the urgency of continuing the name increases. My father is pushing 82, and even though he’ll surprise us when we arrive by being outside shoveling six inches of snow from his driveway, oxygen tank strapped to his back, we are so Irish we are practicing our sorrows early. As if the pain of someday’s loss will be easier with so much practice. My son was named for both grandfathers and while he carries the last name of his German grandfather, he wants to honor his Irish grandfather by switching their shared first name from Will to Liam.

My daughter laughs. She’s got the seat warmer turned on high and her portion of the back seat features steamed-over windows. We know this trip by heart. We know her windows steam up. And we repeat our stories fondly. We are debating the pronunciation of Liam. Would it really be LUM? Beth sounds it out in her head. Scratches the phonics on the steamy window as if to double check her math.

YUM, she tells her brother. Wouldn’t it be pronounced YUM? Isn’t that how we say Will-yum?


Never one to lose any time, as Will and Beth finish the snow shoveling, my Dad sits me down at the kitchen table with a sheaf of papers to sort through. Seems another long-lost distant relative has located him and is requesting family medical history. We debate the pros and cons of embracing a newly-found family member. What is the protocol? How much history of the deceased is shareable? The list my father has compiled of how his siblings have passed away depresses both of us: heart attack, heart attack, drank too much, heart attack, burst blood vessel. We miss every one of them.

We study the names and photos. Back in the day—a handsome family of eight children. Downstairs my kids are coming back into the house, stomping their feet, flinging off their mittens. Calling out for my mother’s dog. Mom is preparing snacks: carrots, celery and fresh radishes. You can’t always get good ones in December. Three choices of sliced fruit, fresh homemade buns and slices of good cheddar cheese.


The house shrinks around us when my kids leave to celebrate Christmas Eve with their father’s family. Mom lights candles, dims the lamps and we wait for Dad to holler from his office. Any time now he will have a selection of photos clicked open on his computer. There’ll be shots of his seven siblings from 1963, shots of each of his five kids pouting as toddlers. An array of photos of the Missouri River, and shots of my Grandmother’s old homestead.

Some years Mom and I decide at the last minute to go to midnight mass at St Joseph’s. Arriving just in time to church bells ringing through the quiet neighborhood, giggling and holding hands as we navigate the snowy street and icy sidewalk. A favorite memory of mine, and one I fear won’t be repeated anymore. This year, this time, we linger over photos. Though I’ve seen them all before, each time—the photos click open with something new to  be said.

A wheel horse is the one horse you can most depend on. He’s maybe not a leader, but he is the most diligent.

The photo of a ten-horse-powered tandem-covered-wagon clicks open. I remember: Helena, Montana. Late 1870s. And the guy on the horse is family. I didn’t know the first left horse was termed the wheel horse. And I once knew, but now I forget, the name of the man on the horse.

Bless me father for I have sinned, but I cannot remember: is that my great-grandfather or my great-great-grandfather? I don’t dare ask my father. He’s pointing to first the mules and then back again to the wheel horse. We both agree the rider looks like a young teenager. I wonder what he’d think of us. I wonder what we’d think of him. Naturally, we’ll never meet, but I am drifty enough to imagine it. Now . . . how to ask Dad who he is:

So . . . Dad . . . what do you suppose they called him back then?

Dad doesn’t hesitate for a moment: He’s my namesake or I am his: Willie Moran. Dad’s favorite feature on his Windows Photo Manager is the zoom-in slider. He zooms in and we lean in, peering at Willie’s face. We can’t quite make him out. Does he have freckles like we do? Is this where our hazel eyes come from? Dad zooms back out. We lean back. Dad clicks open a map of the Montana Territory, circa 1864. A sign we are done talking.

But no.

Dad has one more comment to make: But I suspect back in those days, everyone called him ‘Yum.’


About redmitten

author of Cracking Geodes Open, Making Good Use of August, and The Peppermint Bottle. poetry editor for IthacaLit. website:

11 responses to “the wheel horse rider

  1. Happy new year, Sherry. And what a beauty of an addition to your blog. I’m struck by the truth of “we are so Irish we are practicing our sorrows early. As if the pain of someday’s loss will be easier with so much practice” Well, I’m only 1/4 Irish, but that’s the way I’m grieving in advance for my husband, as told in the poems in my book, The Urn. Just didn’t know it came out of my Irish corpuscles.

    • redmitten

      karla, i think of you and your husband often, and not just when i am practicing my sorrows early. your book, the urn, is on my nightstand. many blessings to you both.

  2. Yum to the whole thing. And I never knew that about “Liam.”

    • redmitten

      kathleen, well this thing about “liam” could very well be in my family’s head and no where else, but it sure has become a routine in our family tree. glad you liked this slice of family life!

  3. Your Dad sounds so much like my Dad. My Dad is enormously offended when “Well, yes, of course, you remember so and so who you met at my company picnic that one time when you were six-years-old.” Hell, I don’t even remember the picnic. My kids are half German. They are a quarter Scots Irish from my side. Neither their father or I wanted to stick them with German names and oddly enough, he didn’t want them to have Native American names, either. So, both have Celtic names, Kieli and Aislinn. We didn’t learn until many years later that Aislinn isn’t Ace-lynn as we pronounce it, but more like Ash-lynn or is it As-lynn? Too late to change it now and I guess it’s better this way as her friends call her Ace, which is probably better than Ash or As.

    • redmitten

      laurie, now i could mix things up and ask my dad for a pronunciation. 🙂 i like the story behind both of your daughters’ names. for my daughter, we didn’t think until too late that her german grandparents wouldn’t be able to pronounce “th”, so she quickly became “bet” on that side of the family.

  4. wuffda

    the first left horse looks suspiciously like a donkey….

  5. Rose Hunter

    What a gorgeous post. I love this wheel horse, and wheel horse rider, how wonderful. And being “drifty enough” to imagine [something].
    + what a photo…. Yes, imagine, what they would think of us and we of them–.

    • redmitten

      rose, a couple of books we repurpose at whitewash were from “the olden days”. we look through them for words for our collages and before we know it we are reading passages to each other, often simultaneously. words like ‘wheel horse rider” need to have a strong comeback.

and then you said:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 51 other followers

%d bloggers like this: