The month of May means Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekend. This year, you could remember your loved ones — lost or living — with a Memory Bear. Joan “MaMa Bear” Jonckheere is the owner and founder of Memory Bears in Okemos. It’s her goal to help you capture your memories with a cuddly teddy bear sporting fabric once used by your loved one. Jonckheere started creating Memory Bears last year as gifts. The first bear was a loving gesture to her best friend who’d lost her husband. She transformed some of his clothing into a stuffed animal that her friend could cherish. She also took the remnants of a quilt she inherited from her grandmother and made bears for her family members. Each treasured teddy bear took on a character of its own. Even though they’re outfitted with the same cloth, she customized them so they would each have a unique look that only their owners would appreciate. One thing all of her Memory Bears have in common is a smile that this lifelong seamstress hand stitches herself. Because Jonckheere wanted to bring a smile to the faces of potential customers, she decided to start selling them. The bear makes it possible to keep a loved one near. “They’re great if you’re missing someone who’s in the armed services stationed many miles away, or someone who lives far away that you don’t see very often,” she said. “The bears bring back memories. You can use your senses to feel, smell and remember that special someone.” Since she began, Jonckheere has made more than 100, and has sold 25 of her bears. From surveying the fabric, to planning on what detail of the fabric to capture, to putting on finishing touches — like buttons for the eyes — she estimates that it takes her eight hours to complete one bear. And she’s learned some lessons along the way. Like the fairy story of the three bears, she’s learned to select fabric that is just right — not too thick, not too fragile — and price the bears the same price even though they come in three sizes — 15, 18 or 22 inches long. A self-proclaimed perpetual student, Jonckheere “gets a lot of pleasure out of learning,” she said. “You’re never too old to try something new.” While her story wasn’t always a fairy tale, it’s clear to see that she’s having fun with this new venture. That wasn’t so a couple of decades ago when Jonckheere found herself divorced with a young son to raise. She enrolled in Lansing Community College to get her associate’s degree and then on to Western Michigan University for a bachelor’s in nursing. She worked as a nurse for a many years, lastly at Blue Care Network. When it was time to retire, she didn’t have to wonder what she’d be doingnext. With a talent for organization and love for arts and crafts, she gave her all to Memory Bears, which she runs out of her home in Okemos. She’s clearly hands on, whether it’s decorating her home, teaching herself how to build a website for Memory Bears, making connections with Operation Homefront — a group that provides assistance to families of service members — or crafting the bears. The stuffed animals have come to represent more than a business venture. “There is a rich story behind each of them,” she said. When asked if she has a favorite bear, she said they’re all special, whether they’re made out of an old plaid shirt or something more elaborate like ones she made from a christening gown or wedding dress. They all have a special place in her heart because they’re constant companions who’ll “comfort you forever.”
Ann Cool, MPS, is a freelance writer who lives in Mason with her husband Bob.