'Memory Bears' Bring Comfort During The Holiday Season

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Chatham , Holidays

Jan Hopkins with some of the “Memory Bears” she's made. COURTESY PHOTO

On the afternoon of Nov. 13, a Friday, Jan Hopkins of Harwich logged into a Facebook group called “Chatham Spread the Word,” and made an unusual offer.

She said she would make “memory bears” from a lost loved one’s clothing as keepsakes. She would not charge for her services but she asked that the recipient donate time or money to the Chatham Angel Fund or the Chatham Food Pantry.

The reaction to her offer was swift. “The world needs more of this,” one person wrote. Another wrote, “You are an inspiration.” Chatham glass bead artist Vangie Collins offered to collaborate.

Can there be a greater sorrow for a parent than losing a child?

Susan Gordon, who divides her time between Chatham and Brookline, knows about this sadness that doesn’t go away. She lost her only daughter, Sophie Coppedge Walker, 30, when Walker, an equestrian, was killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. The tragedy happened in Florida on Jan. 4, 2016. Gordon orders coffee in Starbucks using the name Sophie, because she likes to hear her daughter’s name spoken aloud. She speaks of her daughter in the present tense.

“It is a tremendous hole in people’s lives,” Gordon says.

Through the Facebook page, Gordon reached out to Hopkins and ordered eight memory bears as gifts for herself, her daughter’s five brothers and father, and a close friend, who will all receive them as a surprise at Christmas.

“They can share stories of Sophie with their young children and in turn keep Sophie present in their own lives with plenty of ‘bear hugs’ whenever they think of her,” Gordon says.

Hopkins, too, knows what it is to lose a child. She lost her two sons in the span of just six months and 11 days. Her son Christopher, 31, who did tours of duty in the U.S. Army, died on Oct. 25, 2016. And her son Patrick, 26, died in a car accident on his way home from work on May 6, 2017.

“It was a dark time I went through,” Hopkins says.

Grieving, Hopkins found she was hoarding her sons’ belongings. Yet her three daughters Mary, Gabrielle and Sara, had nothing from their brothers. Twenty-five years earlier, when her father died, Hopkins had sewn her first memory bear using her father’s clothing. She decided to make memory bears using her sons’ clothing and present them to her daughters.

Hopkins learned to sew back in school in New Hampshire. She has made quilts for all of her children and grandchildren. Now, as she sat at her sewing machine, listening to the machine’s humming, she felt uplifted. And why not offer others the same comfort the bears could give?

“I could really make a difference to people. When they want a hug they can hold that bear and give it a hug,” she says. “You’re feeling that loved one there. Remember when he wore that shirt?”

After bringing Hopkins a bag of her daughter’s clothing, Gordon asked Collins if she would make special heart-shaped beads for the bears’ necklaces.

“I got to talking to her, and she broke my heart,” Collins says. For Gordon’s bears she is making “cute, adorable hearts” about the size of a nickel. A glass artist, she works from her basement studio using a propane-fired torch and a kiln. For some time she has created beads that hold cremation ashes. When she moved to Chatham a couple of years ago from Nashua, N.H., she began making beads that hold a grain or two of Chatham sand. She had wanted to give back to the community, and was trying to figure out how, when she read Hopkins’s Facebook post.

“I thought, ‘this is it, this is what I can do,’” she says.

After Hopkins posted on Facebook, the orders began rolling in. Besides the eight bears she’s sewing for Gordon, she has another seven or so in the works.

The bears can be made to memorialize any loved one who has died — a child, a parent, a spouse. The bear pattern is intricate, and the most complex part is cutting out each piece of cloth and color coordinating it. Cotton and flannel work best, although Hopkins has also worked with sweaters and silk. After she cuts out the pieces, she places them in labeled Ziploc bags. Buttons will serve as the eyes. Hopkins can make three bears a day, but then they have to be stuffed with fiberfill and finished with some hand sewing. As she works, Hopkins thinks about the person who once wore the clothes she is sewing, and says a little prayer.

“These bears are a gift from two women who were strangers to me just a few weeks ago, and now they are part of Sophie’s story forever,” Gordon says. “How do you say thank you for that unselfish act of kindness?”

Hopkins is happy to do what she can for those who are grieving and for the two nonprofits — Chatham Food Pantry and the Chatham Angel Fund — that lie close to her heart.

“If I can be the one pebble that makes a ripple effect in the water, I can only hope others will hone their talent and donate what they can to their community,” she says.

Contact Hopkins through Collins at vangie@vclampwork.com or call 603-321-2660.