Lasting memories

Marshall woman creates memory bears and pillows from the clothes of loved ones who have died

Photo by Jody Isaackson Deb Paradis and Nancy Kockelman sit on the steps at the Paradis home where many memory bears and pillows have been made since they came up with the idea in April 2016. Paradis sews fabric memories from the clothes of deceased loved ones for people to hang on to down through time.

MARSHALL — A little piece of Grandpa to hug when he is no longer around to hug or a special message from Grandma or Mom, including a whiff of her perfume, is what Fabric Memories creator Deb Paradis of Marshall provides in her renditions of the traditional teddy bear.

“People bring me clothes of loved ones who’ve died, and I make bears or pillows out of them,” Paradis said.

Paradis had originally been contacted in April of 2016 by Nancy Kockelman of Marshall who was ready to clear out her late husband, Jim’s clothes, but thought that some memento could be salvaged from the well-loved threads.

“I worked with Deb and knew that she did sewing,” Kockelman said. “My husband had recently passed when I asked her if she would make bears out of his clothes.”

The Kockelmans had five grandchildren, ages 5-27, so she ordered some bears and some pillows when she was ready to part with her husband’s things.

“I brought the clothes here, and Deb treated them with such respect,” Kockelman said. “I had her do a bear out of Jim’s three-piece suit. That smell is still there.”

“People ask me if they should wash the clothes before bringing them over to have me make fabric memories for them,” Paradis said. “I tell them, no. It makes it more special, like they’re actually hugging that person. Those memories have so much power.”

Paradis began experimenting with various patterns to find one that worked well for her and offered to stitch up a couple of samples before working directly on Kockelman’s request.

“She loved them,” Paradis said, “and I still have the samples.”

Since then, Paradis has sewn and customized bears for others.

They’re customized with names, dates or other messages on the bottom of the feet, she said. Or, as in one case, the birthday was spelled out between both of the feet.

“I’ve shipped to 22 states,” Paradis said. “Recently, two of my bears just ended up in Mexico.”

Paradis said that there is one drawback about the sewing projects, and that is that she gets emotionally attached to them.

“It’s pretty obvious that she cares about what she’s doing,” LaNaye Hennen, one of Paradis’ local customers, said, “and about giving something to people to hold onto and remember their loved ones with.”

Hennen had brought an autographed Eddie Rabbit shirt to Paradis to sew into a memory pillow. The shirt had been her mother’s, a souvenir from a country western festival in Regal, which is still at Paradis’ as a link between the customer and the customizer.

Paradis had previously designed several memory bears from a quilt Hennen’s mother had started from Hennen’s father’s pajamas, but had never put a back on it. Hennen paired the quilt top with an old army blanket of her father’s and ordered memory bears for her grandchildren for this Christmas. Even reusing the scraps, Paradis was about to run out of quilt top and got permission to do a patchwork design on the army blanket to finish the last bear.

Hennen said it was a perfect match for the grandchild it was destined for, Paradis said.

Another young boy who was about to transition from a security blanket to a teddy bear came to see Paradis about doing the job. While his mother had ideas of her own, Paradis kept to the style the boy had in mind and was rewarded with a text depicting his huge grin and twinkling eyes at receiving the bear he had envisioned.

Paradis said she buys buttons in bulk for eyes and ribbon in large yardages but customizes the bears with the special messages her customers request — usually on the bottom of the feet, but sometimes across the tummy — as well as with the clothing from deceased loved ones or special items such as the security blanket.

“I’ve gotten to know some awesome people through this,” Paradis said. “We’ve shared stories and tears around my dining room table.”

Paradis meets with her customers and asks them all the same three questions before she starts their projects:

What customization do they want?

Do they want the scraps of material back?

Is it OK to post pictures of the finished item(s) on her Facebook page? Some say yes, others say no.

With so many great responses to the memory bears she’s made, Paradis and her husband, Craig, decided to pay it forward with gifts of bears to charity fundraisers.

“I have donated bears to cancer benefits,” she said. “Every one we give to a fundraiser is totally free. The families decide how to auction off the bear or sell tickets or whatever.”

The bears have brought in anywhere from $40 each up to $250 per bear.

“I normally charge $45 per bear (if it’s not a fundraiser),” Paradis said. “One family from Minneota is a repeat customer.”

Once Kockelman started sharing her bear idea with families she met at Hospice House, the idea was spread by word-of-mouth and brought in an unexpected surprise for Paradis.

“Prairie Home Hospice approached me about placing an ad in their newsletter, Home for the Holidays,” Paradis said. “They’ve also asked me for business cards to place in their care packages.”

“It’s really nice to receive those packages because many of us don’t know there’re things like this,” Kockelman said. “And, a lot of people don’t know what to do with a loved one’s clothes once they’re gone.”

Business people with integrity do not solicit business from grieving families, so Paradis said she did not feel it right for her to approach them directly.

“But I have learned by word-of-mouth that I am doing a positive thing,” Paradis said.