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  • Writer's pictureJustin Shaw

The Secret Language

Every time I return home to visit my parents in New Perth, Prince Edward Island, I can’t help but marvel at how so much feels the same. The feeling of trust and comfort from the security of home is so infectious I even catch myself slipping into the same old habits. Growing up, it was my self-appointed responsibility to check the missed messages on the phone (a classic wall-mount with a cord as long as our driveway) and then report to the family on any missed calls. Despite having moved out over a decade ago, upon entering my old family home I still check the phone.

“Any calls?” Mom would ask, indulging the old routine.

“Probably someone calling about a horse” I’d reply.

It is important to make the distinction between things being the same and feeling the same. Truth be told, Dad has performed so many renovations on the house in the past number of years, the only thing that’s the same is the name on our mailbox – and even the mailbox has experienced the occasional facelift from year to year. Every time I pass by that mailbox and make the quarter-kilometer venture down the dirt road to my parent’s house, I remember that the feeling of trust and comfort is maintained by a language of love that extends beyond words.

I became more acutely aware of this language the last time I visited home. Dad had picked me up from the airport and was driving me from Charlottetown back to New Perth. It’s about a solid hour of driving, and but the time goes by quicker as we catch up on the ride. My first question for him is always “how many you got now?” Our relationship as father and son has reached such a rapport of common code that I don’t even have to mention what I’m referring to. After a brief, contemplative beat of him quietly counting under his breath, he replies “we got six up in the barn now, might be eight by the end of the week if I make it to Nova Scotia.”

My father, the horse-dealer.

It is a fundamental truth of the Shaw Household that Dad always has horses in the barn. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how many. The Household was built upon a collection of assumed truths, such as:

1) The length of my morning walk down the lane to the school bus would never get any shorter no matter how much I complained about it.

2) A hush would always fall over the kitchen as Mom turned up the radio to listen for the day’s funeral announcements.

3) If Dad ever needed to be found, odds are he was probably in the barn with his horses.

As we pulled through the Tim Horton’s drive-thru, Dad added “did I say six? I meant seven.” The man was so deep in the game he couldn’t keep count off the top of his head. “We got a new one just recently.” “When?” I asked. “This morning.”

How on Earth would he have time to buy another horse and swing into Charlottetown to pick me up at the airport before noon?

When we got home, he took me to the barn, and I found my answer. Still struggling to stand was a newborn filly latching at her mother for the first time. With a quiet smile, Dad watched the filly and mare the same way he undoubtably watched them the whole night through. Then, with a soft sigh, he said “we call her Lady.”

When you spend your entire childhood with some of the most powerful animals on Earth living in your barn and the largest man you’ve ever known raising them, there was little need to worry about the security of your home. It became a detail of life that I took for granted for many years, and I would feel ignorant at times when I’d tell friends about the kind of childhood I had. I would see the reaction of wonder in their eyes as the word ‘horses’ left my mouth. Coming home and seeing my Dad watch over Lady and her mother, it became clearer why I took them for granted: because I was safe. I felt little push nor need to question the invisible comfort that surrounded my home in the form of my father and his horses. The horses protected us, and he protected them.

I’ve asked my Dad many times why he raises horses, and the closest thing to a straight answer I can get from him is because his Dad did. Were his Dad alive, I’d wager he might say the same thing. The choice to march to barn every day to see the horses is born out of the language of love – an agreed upon routine of unspoken compassion. Part of the choice is knowing he wants to the see them, the other part is knowing they want to see him too.

As I unpacked my bags after I checked the phone, Mom told me that Dad had taken a keen interest in horse-breeding. It seemed like the logical lateral move for a horse dealer. Why go out and buy more horses when he can just have them make more themselves? After no less than three hundred generations of barn cats that have come and gone, I’m surprised it took Dad that long to even consider the idea of breeding. Mom revealed it was actually an incredibly difficult decision to pursue this venture. The mare that had just given birth that morning was the second from the same season. The first had died giving birth, and the new filly went with it. The choice to continue in the practice was not one that was made lightly. The death of a family member weighs heavy on the heart, and that of a pet heavy on the soul – but for the like of a fifteen-hand tall mother and her babe, it is heavier than heaven.

I couldn’t help but think about the grief that must've weighed on my Dad’s shoulders. I also couldn't help but think for all that we talked about that day on the drive home, he never mentioned it once. I can only consider whether it was because he didn’t want me to feel the weight of his grief, or if he didn’t want to relive the experience. The vet apparently didn’t charge a cent to remove the bodies, but it cost Dad a broken heart. Grief is the price of love.

With the success of Lady and her mother surviving the night, Dad knew having more horses would require more space. Much like the house (or mailbox), the barn was often renovated or restructured to accommodate the ever-increasing number of horses. After unpacking, I went outside and watched as Dad hammered down the poles to a new fence. The gears of his mind were well at work. Dad’s latest expansion would lead Lady and her mother into a fresh patch of grass near Mom’s garden. The garden featured Mom’s usual team of tomatoes and beans, and between the drills she had expertly placed a large plastic owl. “That’s for keeping out the skunks and raccoons” winked Mom, perhaps thinking the creatures of the night to mistake the wise owl for a flightless bird.

As Lady and her mother grazed in the new expansion of the field, I noticed the fence was only marked off with rope – not wire. I asked why, and Dad replied, “no harm, just wanted the pair to have some fresh grass.” What luxury they were afforded! I often tease Dad that he loves the horses more than his own son. “Always a Clydesdale, never a Clyde” I’d joke. He never laughs at that. Not because it’s untrue, but because he knows that I know good and well that he raises Percherons.

“That aughta do,” said Dad, as he hammered in the last of the poles. Then, as if on cue, the mother horse ducked under rope fence and into the yard. I could swear I almost heard her giggle as the nylon of the rope tickled her back as she made her grand escape. Somewhat perplexed at her mother’s actions, Lady, only a few hours old, was still only hardwired to mimic her mother. If mother eats, Lady eats. If mother drinks, Lady drinks. And if mother springs like Steve McQueen, Lady was sure to be right behind her. Lady and her mother made their way to Mom’s garden and helped themselves to the tomato lunch special. Apparently, horses aren’t afraid of land-owls.

Mom ran to the barn for the grain bucket in an effort to lure the horses back to the barn. At this time, I was faced with yet another fundamental truth of the Shaw Household: Dad. Doesn’t Run. He is a man of large stature – like a brick house, solid and sure. He moves with the sustained pace of a man who only moves when he absolutely has to. Not to be mistaken for lazy, he simply knew if he moved it had to be for good reason. The horses knew that too.

At this point, I was beginning to feel pretty useless - my Bachelor of Arts probably wasn’t going to be much help in this situation. I looked out at the length of the driveway and realized what may have been a long walk for a whiny six-year-old, would only make for a brief sprint to the highway for a pair of horses. As Dad made his way to the barn, I tried to block off the front of the driveway, perhaps thinking my frame would somehow be enough to stop them from leaving the property. The land-owl may have been more equipped than I was.

The horses, however, took a quick notice of Dad’s careful steps towards them. Not needing any warning, they obediently walked back to the barn – very aware of their transgression. Sensing the mother horse may have been somewhat agitated, Dad pulled her back outside to calm her nerves. I stood from afar witnessing a meeting of the minds, from one parent to another in the blazing Sun of July.

He stroked her mane carefully as she grew less and less restless. “Now what did you go and do that for?” he asked her quietly, and non-rhetorically. He asked as if she may have an answer. And for all I know, she did, but it wasn’t for me to know – it was their language.

It takes a strong hand and gentle heart to raise horses. Every time I come home, I discover how lucky our family is to have been raised the same way. The feeling of comfort and security of home has been maintained by a private language of love supported by gesture and compassion. Whether it was spoken or not, we always know it when we feel it.

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Justin Shaw
Justin Shaw
Jul 13, 2020

Pam, thank you for sharing. That story really means a lot. I never knew Danny, and I’m sad to say I barely knew Donald, so stories like that shape a clearer picture of my family and where I came from. Keep well, and thank you.


Jul 13, 2020

Enjoyed that! It brought back many memories of our childhood as we lived on the farm between your great grandfather Danny and grandfather Donald, wonderful neighbours. Had many rides to school on cold days by Danny in the sleigh under the buffalo

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