In helping others cherish their loved ones, a Rusk County resident has found a perfect way to preserve her own memories.
On the path she is on, Kelly Kowaleski is confident her son, Brady, is always her companion.
Kelly Kowaleski, of the Tony area, owns Bear Memories, a small business specializing in t-shirts, quilts and memory bears that keep loved ones and life events close to the heart. These “Memory Bear” mementos can be made of any number of fabrics and are generally made from a loved one’s clothing or personal belongings. They help keep a lost loved one close to the heart. They also can be made to immortalize a special time or event in a person’s life.
“I want people to be remembered. The last thing I want is for someone to forget Brady. I don’t want anyone’s loved ones to be forgotten,” Kelly said.
Ben and Kelley Kowaleski are a tight-knit hunting family, and the couple’s son, Brady, 15, was tragically killed in an accident with a gun in their home. That was 11 years ago.
Kelly struggled for years with the loss of Brady. She was mad. She was upset. She couldn’t understand why her son had to be the one to go.
Her epiphany came almost five years later, while consoling a friend who had miscarried and was left with no memories of her child. She then realized she had 15 years of great memories of Brady. That was the turning point.
“That was really the catalyst to do the bears. This might be the only memory they have. That really was another thing that pushed me to do this. Some people don’t get what I get. You have to turn every negative into a positive,” Kowaleski said. “Every day I think every day of those 15 years were a gift and some people don’t get that. I was pretty blessed.”
The family room
The Kowaleski family did everything together.
While Kelly sewed in her sewing room, her children played video games in the next room. That is how she kept up with her children’s lives, talking to them as she sewed.
“This is where I learned about their lives,” Kelly said. “Brady would be into his video games. I would sew and we would talk.”
After the accident, everything changed. Brady was gone. Kelly gave up sewing.
“I felt like I shouldn’t be in there. He wasn’t here. It is so different. I am not learning about his life. I kind of put it on the back burner because I couldn’t sew anymore,” Kelly said.
Several months passed, until Christmas arrived. Kelly had an idea. She gathered several of Brady’s favorite clothing items including his jeans, boxers, dress shirts and hunting shirt. She went back to sewing.
After drawing up a bear pattern, the idea was to sew a few teddy bears using Brady’s clothing for a few close friends and Brady’s sisters.
“The first cut [of the fabric] was horrible. I cried, but the more I cut the better I felt. I was touching his clothes,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s spirits were lifted by the responses to the bears by her friends, Sharalyn Overhagen and Deb Rhodes, who were always there for support after the accident, and her daughters, Kasey Rose and Brooke Sieg.
Their reaction encouraged Kelly to sew a few more bears to give to Brady’s close friends.
“The looks on their faces were amazing. They loved them,” Kelly said.
She began sewing more bears, this time for family and friends.
“The look on their faces and the joy they showed was just amazing,” Kelly said.
Several years passed, and Kelly wondered if she could help other families that lost loved ones the same way she helped friends and families cope with Brady’s loss.
“We are not the only people who lost someone we love. People lose people every day. What if I could get their clothing, and I could make bears for those people?” Kelly said.
She filled a handful of orders from friends at Flambeau School, where at the time she was working as a special education paraprofessional.
“They loved them, and it started to snowball,” Kelly said.
Waking from hibernation
Bear Memories started small, but in no time Kelly was struggling to keep up with orders that were flowing in. For about the last six years she has been sewing fulltime at home.
Shocked would be an understatement, according to Kelly. She never expected the business would take off like it did. She left other jobs she had at the school and an area business to devote all her time to Bear Memories.
“Before I was doing a lot of bears but not to the volume that I do now. It is like, wow,” she said.
Her kitchen table is filled with an assortment of bears in all shapes, sizes and colors. Each is different. Each has a story to tell. Each is ready to be delivered.
One bear sewn from wedding dress and “one-zie” materials was made for a new youngster whose mother had been told she could not become pregnant. That diagnosis changed two months into her marriage, when she was informed she was expecting.
Matching bears were made from a retired DNR officer’s uniform to mark the occasion. The bears were made from the uniform shirt and the paw pads and ears from the uniform pants. The patches were then removed and hand stitched onto the bear.
One bear was sewn from a great-grandma’s square dancing dress.
A rush order of cubby bears was made for a woman with lung cancer who is not sure if she will survive to Christmas. They were quickly made out of the woman’s shirts, jeans, scarves and boots to give to her children.
“Some of the orders are real tearjerkers. Some are just fun for being in memory of babies,” Kelly said.
Orders have been sent across the country including Virginia, Louisiana, the northeast and southwest. There have been many return customers.
People send fabric with their orders, and Kelly said the material talks to her. She recalls how some lacy wedding dress lining didn’t quite fit on the back of a bear, so she cut it through the middle and flipped it over to look like angel wings.
The angel wings were perfect because the wedding dress belonged to a woman who collected angels and her full set of collectibles had been passed down to her daughter — the one who ordered the bear.
“I really do believe not only my son is there when I am doing this but these people are there with me,” Kelly said. “These people are definitely here. They are definitely paying attention to what is going on.”
The tough ones are memory bears made for babies who passed away.
One included a necklace charm featuring a priceless cast of the hand of a baby who had died.
Another, ordered by a mother who miscarried, featured a crotchet blanket and a wrap used to swaddle the baby. There was just enough material to make a tiny cubby bear for the infant’s brother as a lasting memory.
“It is a sad moment but to know that filled his little heart. It was the best. There is no greater feeling that I helped fill a void, maybe not completely filled it, but at least part of it. I love what I do, and that is the best part,” Kelly said.
“No one else can say they took something that broke their heart and filled their heart again. How awesome is that,” Kelly said.
Along the way, Kelly, too, was saved.
She is made happy each time her son’s spirit is kept alive through pictures and stories. When she sews, Kelly knows Brady will never completely pass from memory.
“Every time I sit down at my sewing machine I know Brady is there. I know he had a hand in this somehow. I don’t want to say it is the reason, but it certainly is a direction,” Kelly said. “People need this. I don’t do this for money. I do it for the reward of knowing I am going to be another person who remembers someone else’s loved one. That is the goal here. No one is forgotten.”
She sews, and she thinks. She looks at pictures, and she remembers. She is alone, but she knows there are many families and their bears around her.
“It’s soul filling. It makes me happy. It makes me know I am doing the right thing,” Kelly said.
A special order Kelly remembers was in honor of a fallen Rusk County Sheriff’s deputy as a gift of comforting pillows for the officer’s wife and children.
Deputy Dan Glaze was killed in the line of duty in October 2016. Glaze’s uniforms were brought to Kelly the night before the next morning’s funeral service. She went to her sewing room and worked until 2 a.m.
“It was so worth it. I wanted to do something for the family,” Kowaleski said. “This was about those kids needing something tangible to hold and look at and say that is their dad. It just broke my heart. I can’t even imagine how that can happen.”
For the love of sewing
Kelly loves fabric. She loves to touch it. She loves to feel it. She loves to smell it.
She was taught to hand sew at the age of 6 years old by her grandfather, Art Kuligowski. Several years later, she was given her great-grandmother’s Kenmore electric sewing machine. It featured only straight stitch and back-up, but for years she sewed clothing and anything else she could imagine.
“He helped me get my first sewing machine, and now it has snowballed to here,” Kowaleski said.
She now spends hours nearly every day sewing. She fabricates bears. She produces pillows. She fashions quilts.
Families provide the material. She adds the time, thread, stuffing. The elements come together through creativity, passion and love to make sure each item can hold up to numerous holds and hugs.
Kowaleski sits and sews. Brady is there, always, in pictures and spirit.
“I am positive he is there with me every time I turn on that sewing machine and I am working on these. I am positive,” Kowaleski said.
Bear Memories evolved from Kelly’s alteration business, Bear Threads, which originally was named for her love of bears. She drew bears on the edge of school papers while growing up. She collected bear items. She wanted to incorporate bears into her sewing.
“It’s my passion,” she said.
A self-described “people person,” Kelly tries to hand-deliver as many orders as she can. She schedules pickups for the raw fabric material, hoping to get a feel of a person’s character. She later schedules drop-offs of the finished bears and pillows, looking forward to seeing the looks on their faces.
“I like to know how they feel. I like to know who they are,” Kelly said.
Each reaction to the bears is different, Kelly said.
Some give the bears hugs. Some cry. Some howl with laughter.
“Sometimes people will hug them and say they hope they never have to call me again,” Kelly said.
“I love to see their faces and expressions, knowing I did this and it made them so happy,” Kelly said. “To me it is a small token, but it makes such a big difference to the people who receive the bears and pillows.”
She filled orders for more than 100 bears during the two months leading up to last Christmas. She has received orders as big as 35 bears. She once completed an order for 35 pillows.
She considers orders of more than 10 items big requests as families occasionally ask for a memory to be made for each relative. She doesn’t consider sewing to be work, and thinks of it more as a hobby.
Cutting the fabric takes the most time, according to Kelly. Larger bears take an hour or more to sew. Smaller bears can be sewn in less than an hour. Each takes about six hours, total to complete.
“I do everything by hand. I cut everything out by hand. I put on the little eyes by hand. I put on the nose by hand. Everything I do is by hand, other than the machine work,” Kelly said.
After a while of looking at the fabric, she takes out scissors, needle and thread. Like it was when she sewed the first bears out of her son’s clothing for friends and family more than a decade ago, the first cut of the fabric is the deepest. Then the material begins to spill its stories, and Kelly is there listening.
“The fabric speaks to me,” she said.
For a friend
Glen Flora residents Larry and Sharalyn Overhagen received one of Kelly’s very early bears as a gift, after the couple helped the Kowaleskis cope with their son’s death. The “Brady Bear” still sits in the Overhagen’s spare bedroom.
“It’s wonderful to have him as our grandkids ask about the bear, and we can tell them about Brady. He is a jointed, kind of skinny bear and we love him,” Sharalyn said.
A few years ago when Sharalyn’s sister, Sandy, decided it was time to dispose of her wedding gown, she asked if Kelly would want it for something. Sharalyn had the idea to have the material transformed into a beautiful gift for her sister.
“She was beautiful,” Sharalyn said. “Kelly had fashioned a little veiled hat out of the original for the bear and really tried to match the style of my sister’s gown for the bear, even using the little buttons that went up the back and everything It’s a beautiful keepsake.”
“As I was looking through all the Facebook posts with the pictures of the bears she’s made, I am astounded to see the number bears she has created. Each of those bears represents a life that she has touched. It’s remarkable. I am so proud of her and so thankful that she has found her passion in her healing,” Sharalyn said.
In a Facebook post, Linda Applebee said, “You made our memories of Dad the best.”
Stanley resident Pat Watts thanked Kelly, thanks again for the “awesome job” she did. “Everyone who received one was so happy and couldn’t believe the wonderful job you did,” she said.
In a Facebook post, Cornell area resident Sami Walters showed off a bear made by Kelly.
“This handsome fellow belongs to Harper. Her great-grandpa was able to enjoy moments with her for almost seven months. But the bear will help share the love forever. Thank you so much Kelly for the special bears. They turned out just as I imagined,” Walters posted on social media.
Ladysmith resident Kathi Kesan and her sisters each received the gift of a bear from their parents. They were created by Kelly from the outfit the girls wore on their first birthday pictures.
“Along with the bears, we each received a memory ornament that was made from an outfit that our brother had worn. We lost him just before Christmas in 1981. Both are cherished gifts,” Kesan said.
Kelly hopes she can continue making life better for people for many years to come. She has been through tragedy and wants others to know their loved ones are always there in memory and spirit.
“Until there is no demand,” Kelly said. “I don’t see myself quitting sewing, and I certainly don’t see myself not making memories for people because it fills my heart with joy. Tons of joy.”
The same way fabric speaks to Kelly, the bears talk for years and tell stories to others. The people may be gone, but the bears keep their memories alive.
Brady is always there, according to Kelly.
“I know I see his face. In my mind’s eye, I see him saying, ‘good job, mama,’” she said.
“I love it, and I love making people happy. That is the best part,” Kelly said.