KINSLEY — 784.
That’s how many memory bears Carolyn Rosenhamer, a Kinsley resident, has made for people who have lost a loved one.
The 72-year-old grandma uses clothes from the recently deceased to create huggable teddy bears from scratch, and gifts them to their family members to help them in the grieving process.
"I call them memory bears to be made out of the clothes of those who wore them," Rosenhamer said. "I have made other bears. Like when our school closed (St. Nicholas Grade School), I made some out of the uniforms for the school—I never dreamed they would grow to this quantity. Sometimes you cry and that’s okay. I’m just glad I’m able to do it."
These creations began 10 years ago after a family member, Jerry Davis, made a life-sized bear for her sister-in-law.
"When (my husband) Bob’s sister lost her husband, her cousin came and asked for his shirt," Rosenhamer said. "She brought back a teddy bear. I thought it was a great idea. And, not long afterwards, a little 5-year-old boy was killed in a car accident and a month later, a young father was killed because he drowned, and both of those babies I had held.
"So, it was important to me to do something special and the teddy bear idea happened for me. I didn’t want a great big teddy bear, I wanted a huggable teddy bear."
Rosenhamer recently delivered bears numbered 781-784 to the family of Pressley Bartonek, a Conway Springs toddler who was electrocuted at a carnival by Towne West Mall in the spring. Her grandmother, Lynn Bartonek, said the bears have made a "horrible situation a little easier."
"I held her with (these) clothes and now I’m holding a piece of her," Bartonek said. "We’re very grateful for having a piece of her to always be there. People forget, family doesn’t. She gave us something that we can hold, a memory. A love lost, but not forgotten."
Rosenhamer said Bartonek’s response is typical.
"I get a lot of response," Rosenhamer said. "I feel like the reason I do it is to help people grieve and to have something to hold. I see a reaction of happiness and tears. They’re upset because of the emotion they evoke, not because they don’t want the bear. I have not heard anything but good responses from everyone."
Patty Meyer, a Clearwater resident and Rosenhamer’s sister, has helped Rosenhamer with several of her bear projects. Meyer said she loves to see people’s reactions, sharing a memory of Debbie Lawrey’s, seeing the bears made of her mother Wilma’s clothes for the first time.
"When I see people hold them, they are just overwhelmed," Meyer said. "They recognize the clothes—it’s like holding a piece of them. (When) we had Wilma’s, we had 60-some bears on her bed. Debbie came in and picked one out of the middle and said ‘This one’s mine. It was out of her pajamas that I put on her every night.’"
Wichita resident Debbie Robinson said she cried when she first saw the bear made out of her mother’s clothing.
"When I heard about them I thought ‘That’s a really cool idea,’ but it didn’t hit me until I saw it in an outfit that I saw, knew my mom wore," Robinson said. "And it made me cry, and it made me happy. I remember my mom wearing that outfit. It’s a tan-checkered suit and pants she used to wear. And, that’s why I picked that bear. I miss my mom, but I love my mom bear."
Robinson said her bear does just as Rosenhamer had hoped. It helps her through her grieving process.
"I talk to [my bear] every single day and she gives me comfort," Robinson said. "I talk through things for myself like ‘What do I do about this? What do I do about that? But, just talking to her about it, even though I don’t get answers, I feel better. It makes me process it in my own head. But, I know she’s listening. I know she hears everything I say and that makes me happy."
Rosenhamer made 20 bears for the Robinson family, but will make as many bears as she can with the fabric she is given. The most bears she has made at once was 67, for Wilma’s family.
"I have two pieces of pattern and it’s how ever I can work those patterns into that piece of fabric or shirt," Rosenhamer said. "[I use] what that shirt has that’s different that I can put a collar on the bear or take buttons and put them down the front like that one. It’s just how I can make the pattern out of the fabric that I’ve got. It’s just simply an individual thing."
Each bear requires a mixture of machine sewing and hand sewing. She can make approximately 12 bears out of a $25-box of stuffing, which she buys herself.
"Each bear is its own thing," Rosenhamer said. "If there’s not much to do with it, it takes approximately an hour, hour-and-a-half to make. If it has intricacies somewhere, it might take two days, because I have to lay it down and come back to it and decide what to do with it. Every piece of fabric is different, you know."
Rosenhamer does not charge for making the bears, although some of her beneficiaries do insist on paying her. She said she just wants to make something people care about, and something for them to hold.
"My neighbor was in her 80s," said Rosenhamer, of one of her favorite reactions to her memory bears. "(My sister) Patty and I took a bear over that we had made of her brother. And, she took that bear and she cried and she danced ‘round and ‘round in her living room."
Rosenhamer said once the bears are finished, her granddaughter, McKenzie Herrmann, hugs each one before they are returned to the family.
"I do have this little bear hugger," Rosenhamer said. "McKenzie hugs every bear before it leaves home. And, she kisses it and tells them ‘go on their way.’ I caught her yesterday and said ‘I’ve got bears—you get in there and hug them’ and she said ‘Okay, grandma. I’ve hugged them each and kissed them eight times, grandma.’ I said ‘That’ll do.’ I try to tell everyone that. These bears have been hugged and kissed and they’re ready to go love somebody."
Robinson said she keeps her bear in her bedroom and interacts with it daily.
I would not give my bear up for anything in the world," she said. "And, I’m so grateful to [Patty] and [Carolyn] for doing that for us. That was just an amazing idea. It’s helped me tremendously."