More than a Memory
Chris West smiles brightly at you as she makes her way into your office, settling herself into a chair across from yours. The change in weather has prompted warm boots and a light jacket, which she shrugs off and rests across her lap.
At her feet is a bag, primly sitting. Inside are the contents of which you will discuss, shortly. First, however, you exchange pleasantries about the day, weather, and work. You ask her where she’s from, and she explains, sharing that her family is happily living in the Annandale area, though she is originally from Buffalo.
Finally, at long last, she brings the bag up to her lap, revealing the surprise. What she reveals are two smiling, sewn teddy bears, with small pictures pinned to their sides. Their button-eyes stare sweetly, both of them holding memories, and stories.
“These,” West explains, “are the memory bears.”
Chris West grew up in Buffalo her entire life, but now resides in Annandale with her family. She’s been a teacher for around 30 years, working in special education, in Hopkins – a long drive from Annandale, but one that she doesn’t mind.
Having recently transitioned to Annandale from a Buffalo ranch on County Road 35, after spending 20 years working with horses, West shares that the fundamental part of her life closed not so long ago, but on good terms. It was time for the family to “downsize,” as she shared, which prompted their move to Annandale.
So, when she’s not busy (which is rare, she shares lightheartedly), West devotes a good deal of time to sewing. Having always been crafty, and a lover of sewing, it was only around six years ago when she realized that her small hobby may have more meaning behind it than what she previously imagined.
Memory Bears, as she calls them, were not something she started as a business. They actually came to be after a family member passed away, and the family started going through old clothing – clothing, they realized, that they didn’t really need, but still oddly reminded them of their father-in-law.
“He had some really nice shirts,” West commented. “Then, I don’t know, it just sort of happened. I began looking at teddy bear patterns and came up with the idea that I could make the bears out of shirt material.”
The idea stuck. West made 45 bears for her family members, and passed them out at Christmastime, in memory of their family. All made from different shirts, each of the bears had a small picture of the deceased pinned to it, as a reminder each and every time they looked to the bear for comfort.
“I learned to sew from my mom,” West explained. “I was really the only kid of our family to stick with sewing; never left it. Going through clothes, realizing the only thing you can do with them is donate them really gave me an alternative: use something that your loved one wore all the time, and create something lasting from it to help preserve a memory.
The idea of making bears for other people never really occurred to West until she was contacted by a friend, whose relative had recently passed away. After clearing up some details, it was determined that West would make more bears for the friend, using shirts from the passed relative, in return for minor compensation of materials.
“I do not do this for profit,” West explained, clearly. “I do this because it is meaningful, and because I enjoy it. All I ask is that they help cover cost for materials like buttons, ribbon, and so on. But the work is entirely free.”
That said, West isn’t looking for her memory bear projects to become business – she wants to keep her operation small; helping friends and family when they need it the most. She puts time, effort, thought, and meaning into each of the bears she sews, which takes about two hours per bear.
“The requests come mostly from people I or my daughters know,” she explained. “If they are close friends and family, I’ll do it for free. It’s my way of letting people know that I understand where they are, what they are going through, and this is only a small token of that.”
Her favorite part of the bears is seeing the outcome of the design, and how different they all look. “It almost, in a way, shows you a lot about the person [who died]. Many times their clothes have the same style and color scheme; other times they have an array of wardrobe choices. It’s unique to see that about someone’s life.”
Not only is the choice of clothing style reflected in each bear, which makes them personal in their own right, but, each of the shirts which West uses are not washed. By not washing the clothes, the owner’s scent often lingers, adding an entirely new level of personality and emotional connection to each of the bears.
“There’s something about smell that connects memories to reality,” West said. “You give your bear a snuggle, and smell that person’s scent, and you’re transported back into an array of different memories. I find it very important not to wash the clothes for this reason.”
Despite all the time West invests in making her memory bears, very rarely does she get to see the reaction of the recipients when they receive their bears. She does, though, remember the reaction of her family members receiving their bears, and has come to the conclusion that not knowing other people’s feelings in the moment is just fine.
“I know they’re grateful in their own ways, even if I don’t get to see it all the time,” she said. “That’s fine. Knowing I got to play a roll, even a small one, is all I need. I love what I do and that is what matters.”
However, that does not mean she doesn’t hear about others’ reactions. “Sometimes, people will share how giving the bears away changes people. In that moment, I am moved. It makes me feel good, knowing that what started out of a place of my own grief has evolved to helping others get through those dark, hard times.”
Since she started sewing her memory bears six years ago, West estimates she’s made about 100 of them, which says a lot. Knowing that there are that many people who have suffered grief adds an entirely new perspective to her work, a perspective that she doesn’t take lightly, and appreciates.
“For me, this is a very simple way for me to give back to others who are hurting. There is nothing more comforting than having something tangible that reminds you of your loved ones. I’m honored to be able to do this, and sewing is a pastime I enjoy. My family has benefitted from them, and I’m glad others can, as well.”
West resides in Annandale with her husband and family nearby.