‘Watch for deer:’ An origin story
It’s not often that a person gets to be a part of an origin story. Like, imagine if you’d been in the Boosters Club the day someone said, “You know what this county needs? A rivalry game with Ravenswood, and we give out an axe to the winner.” For sure a 100 years later, your family would still be telling people, “My grandpa helped start this tradition,” at every Hatchet Game.
So let me tell you the tale of how the phrase, “Watch for deer is West Virginian for ‘I love you,’” caught fire, because the spark happened right inside our very own Waybright Funeral Home three years ago.
To tell that tale, I have to go back to college for a moment, to West Virginia Wesleyan. A school I picked because it gave great scholarships and 96-percent of the kids who wanted to, went on to law school. A Methodist school, so my mother thought Sunday church was required (it is not), and my parents also seemed to think was on the other side of the earth, because they dropped me off on move-in day and then never came to campus again for three years.
Pamela Kesling (she was an Erb back then) was living with Heather Monk (now Bokenstab) freshman year. Heather and I had known each other since sixth grade; we were in Mrs. Click‚Äôs homeroom and shared a locker in the sixth grade wing of RMS. Pamela’s really well-read, she’s a great listener, and she’s one of those people who genuinely likes learning new things about people and the world around her, so she’s fascinating to talk to. She’s a poet, a musician, and she‘s the kind of friend you can call up out of the blue for lunch on a Tuesday after months apart, and it’s like you see each other every day.
She’s also the kind of friend that when she knows you need support, she shows up, without you even asking. Plays, live music shows, art showings, business openings: if you want Pamela there, you don’t need to ask her to come, because she’s already bought her ticket. So she knew, as only someone who has also lost a parent too early knowns, that on December 26, 2017, that I would need all the support I could get at my dad’s viewing.
I’m going to stop and make a case for viewings here, for just a moment. More than anything, more than funerals and burials and celebrations of life, viewings provide a closure you don’t know you need when someone dies. Probably because they take place so soon after someone passes, it’s the opportunity to mourn that people need, in the way they need it. Because unlike funerals and celebrations, you can say you’re sorry and leave right away if you need to. Of course you can stay and visit (that’s always, always appreciated), but when grief is so fresh, sometimes it’s all you do to hug the bereaved and whisper, “I’m so sorry,” before leaving and hoping no one sees the tears in your eyes. But then you get out to your car, and already, you feel a bit better, because you’ve paid your respects and if you can’t make the funeral or celebration, it’s okay. The bereaved have that hug or handshake or spoken word that really tells them you are with them in their grief.
So even though my dad did not really want a viewing, we had one because we needed it, and he wasn’t in a position at that point to argue, and if he had been, well wouldn’t have needed a viewing, would we? For six hours we were hugged and hand shaked, and shown love, and we soaked it all in. My friends, whom I love like family, came from all over the area (even on their way back to Seattle- thanks, Chris Blackburn), and made me smile and got me drinks, and let me make bad jokes, and got to meet in person the uncles and cousins I talked about so much.
As the evening wound down, my people prepared to go home. Pamela put on her coat and scarf (she wears a scarf better than anyone I know), and everyone said goodbye to her, I said reflexively, as West Virginians say to everyone leaving somewhere at night from the month of November through March, “Watch for deer!”
A few hours later after leaving Waybright’s, Pamela posted this tweet: (see photos)
It caught on like a firestorm on the great plains. I saw it and the meme’d up versions on my Facebook timeline easily 100 times over the next few days, and it was re-tweeted over a thousand times. Since then, it’s been included on, “Top Ten West Virginia Phrases” lists, it’s been carved into metal key chains and every other kind of gift item you can think of, and now, it’s a cute t-shirt you can buy from Kinship Goods. If anyone has told you to, “Watch for deer!” in the last three years, it’s put a little smile on your face because you know what they’re really saying.
And my friend, Pamela, one of the best wordsmiths I know, started that. She took something so routinely West Virginian and put it in a way that reminded us how unique it was to us. A reminder in less than 100 words that we may show our love to each other differently here in West Virginia, but the love is always there.
So when you get your t-shirt or keychain or mug etched with this phrase, you’ll know now where that phrase originated from, and it didn’t come from some marketing or advertisement group trying to cash in on West Virginia pride. It sparked from a place of friends supporting friends when they needed it most, and the creativity that comes from loving the eccentricities of West Virginia life. It came from my friend, Pamela, who will never get much more out of having created a real moment in our Appalachian culture than this origin story. But for the friendship she gives those of us lucky enough to call her a friend, and to our creative culture with her poems, photographs, and music as one-half of, “The Little Blue Hearts,” she deserves so much more.
At the very least, give my friend a free t-shirt.