The Blue Bear

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When I was a baby–perhaps for on the occasion of my first or second birthday, no one remembers anymore– my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, gave me this stuffed bear, which she had made herself. Now, almost 50 years later, I am faced with the task of sending Blue Bear off to the landfill.

My relationship with Blue Bear is an odd one. He was never one of my favorite stuffed animals, and yet I have kept him with me all these years, while the others have fallen by the wayside. He was never particularly soft or cuddly–though age has softened him, as it does all of us– and he did not meet my arcane childhood standards of cuteness. I had my favorites; he was not one of them. I never even gave him a proper name. But he formed the reliable back center of my stuffed animal arrangements, and also made a pretty good pillow for reading.

What my young self did know, however, was that he was handmade expressly for me and that was nothing short of miraculous. I did not come from a crafty family. The kind of emotional weight that I’ve attributed to the gift accounts for his longevity. I’ve dragged him along with me for all these years. Mostly he has spent his time on a closet shelf, ignored but kept, because great-grandma made him so how could I throw him out?

My great-grandmother’s name was Caroline Folkestad, nΓ©e Thomson. She was born in 1884 in Denmark. I don’t know when she came to the U.S. I don’t know how she met my great-grandfather, Halvard. He was born in Norway in the same year. Did they meet over there and come to the U.S. together, or did they meet in Wisconsin, where they spent most of their life? Or did they even settle in Wisconsin at first? Our family is not big on genealogy or family stories, so I don’t know.

I do know Halvard was a Methodist minister, and so Caroline was a minister’s wife, and that gives me some sense of how she spent her time when she was not crafting bears. Did she make many bears over the years as gifts for friends, family, parishioners–or was Blue Bear sort of a one off?

She was 84 or so when she made that bear, and that is impressive in itself. It was the late 1960’s, and the materials she chose to construct him are representative of the period. His polyester fur, originally brilliant aqua blue, like a swimming pool on a sunny day, and his bronze-tone plastic button eyes are glimpses into the color palette of my childhood. In addition, he used to have bright red felt or something similar lining his ears, but that was chewed off by unknown agents long ago. Yet I still remember the brilliant contrast between the red ears and the aqua blue fur.

bearslumpWhile Blue Bear was a fixture in my bedroom growing up, I barely remember great-grandmother Caroline. Certainly I was too young to remember her giving me the bear. She lived in Wisconsin, and we lived in Colorado, and visits were infrequent. Caroline’s son, my mother’s father, died of cancer when I was only three. So I’m sure she and Halvard came to Denver for the funeral, but I don’t remember that. But that adds one more thing to the very short list of things I know about her: minister’s wife, born in Denmark, made bears, buried son.

My single memory of her comes from a later visit to Wisconsin. I may have been five or so. I have just a few memories of that trip, disjointed and frozen in amber.

1) I had a Little Dot comic book (presumably purchased to keep me quiet on the trip) which just fascinated me.

2) I had to sleep on a couch under the gaze of a stuffed moose head, which was absolutely terrifying. Clutching the Little Dot book helped the terrors to some extent.

3) I remember meeting my great-grandparents at what I assume was their front door. I remember that I stood the height of my great-grandmother’s very ample bosom (she being short and I being tall) which was encased in a curious old fashioned dress with many tiny buttons running down the front. Her arms were soft and pillowy and her hands and arms were covered in spots. I’d never seen age spots before. She had a kindly face, but it was covered with so many wrinkles! Halvard was much the same, fascinatingly wrinkly and spotty, but more lean. He had a gap in his teeth which made him whistle on “s” sounds, like parodies of old men in old-fashioned comedies: “Ssssssscuse me, ssssssonny.”

My parents were very young when they had me. My grandma Folkestad, my mother’s mother, I realize now to my horror, was not much older at that time than I am now. So this was my first encounter with real elders.

I don’t believe I ever saw them again. Caroline died in 1974, a couple of years after our visit, and Halvard followed her in 1977, and all I have of her are my genes, those memory fragments and the bear. I don’t even remember her voice.

Which leads me to musing on what we leave behind, on the ephemeral nature of memory and experience. Some families are big on family lore and stories and those get passed down and repeated over the generations. As I’ve said, my family is not like that, on either side. But I don’t think my family is atypical in our a-historical ways.

Perhaps part of it is the immigrant mindset. The generation who came from the Old World (in my case, Ireland and Scandinavia) seem to have been eager to leave their past behind. Their kids, the second generation, cried “Westward, Ho!” and cut whatever tenuous roots their parents had planted in the Midwest. They had their eye on the future. So I can’t be surprised that we have no tradition of family lore or ways of honoring our ancestors.

I wonder what knowledge of an individual life endures more than two generations out. We pass out of memory so quickly, yet day to day, we live under the comfortable illusion that we’re immortal, and because of this we obsess on all these little conflicts and worries and daydreams which will be forgotten sooner than even we are.

And then, there is the bear.

Blue Bear is hand stitched, so for all I know, he is the last remaining scrap of Caroline’s handiwork, the last evidence of her intentions and skills and creativity (other than myself, I suppose–but you know what I mean.)

Still, fifty years is a long time, even for polyester fun fur, so Blue Bear is disintegrating. In the end, I suppose, time decides things for us this way. But I made things worse by washing him. His head and one arm came loose, revealing that he’d been stuffed with strange scraps and lumps of polyester wadding of different colors. His body material is so fragile at this point I can’t even consider trying to Frankenstein him back together.

KonMari would say it is time to let him go. She would send him to the landfill without compunction. I wince at sending him there, both out of sentimentality and because, being made at the forefront of the polyester revolution, he will never return to the earth. For that same reason, I cannot bury him or burn him. I seriously would give him a “viking funeral” if I could– but LA’s air is bad enough already without me burning plastics in the backyard.

Oh, if only he’d been made of wool! It would be so easy, then. But none of my childhood toys were made of wool. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any toy I owned which was made of natural materials. Somehow Blue Bear, as a 100% polyester toy, represents my abundantly plastic childhood.

I’m not sure when the world became so very plastic– perhaps the 50’s? Wherever it started, it certainly accelerated through my lifetime. The majority of my childhood was spent immersed in plastic. I ate off of plastic plates set on vinyl tablecloths, slept under poly quilts and 50/50 blend sheets. I think back on my groovy synthetic clothing, my bean bag, my Biggie comb, my Breyer Horses and my Barbies. It’s all buried somewhere now, part of the immortal treasures of the 2oth century, my own King Tut’s Tomb.

My great-grandmother Caroline, on the other hand, was born into a world which did not know polyester or plastic. In fact, rayon and polyester don’t appear on the scene until the 194o’s, so she was over 50 when she first encountered fibers based on petrochemicals. Yet at the end of her life, she stitched a toy for her great granddaughter out of entirely out of these novel, man-made materials. At that time, those bright colors and new textures represented modernity, a break with the past, the thrill of the future. It probably all seemed very hopeful.

And so anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to do with this bear.

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36 Comments

  1. Very poignant story. My favorite Teddy bear is still around, though on a shelf, was given to my parents for me around the time I was born or just after, 36 years ago. I’m the opposite: it has a lot of nostalgia for me but I don’t know who gave it to us. Certainly wasn’t handmade.

    Your thoughts on the last bits of handiwork remind me of the sadness I feel when I see abandoned quilts and afghans at the Goodwill or thrift shops. Someone made them with some kind of thought and love.

  2. I like the Viking funeral – not really any worse than burning a gallon of diesel in a beater car. But if you can’t stomach that, maybe turn him into stuffing for a throw pillow or somesuch?

  3. This is maybe a weird idea, but you could find a photographer who can do a portrait of the bear. If you have a picture of your great grandmother, that can be incorporated into it. Then you can frame it, and let the actual bear continue his disintegration.
    Maybe an artist could find a use for him?

  4. Take a heart-shaped piece of the fabric and put it in a frame. πŸ™‚

    (I’m not a twee “hearts and flowers” decor girl myself, but when faced with a bolt of beautiful red silk brocade fabric dh and I claimed after his grandpa – an upholsterer – died, that then languished in the “someday….” zone in our closet for over a decade, one day I went to a craft faire and happened upon a maker of beautiful pillows. I commissioned him to make five heart-shaped accent pillows from the fabric, one for each of the grandchildren and one for dh’s mom. Our pillow accents our bed, and dh and I feel grandpa’s “love” for his craft and us every time we see it. And no more “someday” crafting guilt for me anymore either πŸ˜‰ )

    • Yes! One of our rare bits of family lore is that the family name was actually Olsen-or Olson?–and when he immigrated (or was it they, Caroline and Halvard?), he decided that there were too many Olsens and he would rather have a more individual name, so he chose Folkestad, because he was from there, or lived somewhere nearby. That is how the story is told, but maybe it was a way to ensure they’d not forget where they came from???

  5. Keep the bear. Put your story about the bear and your ancestors with the bear. Sign and date your story. If you do not want to keep the bear and the story yourself, find a cousin or another relative to pass it on to. I am a genealogist. Too many memories are lost when items relating to a family’s history are discarded. I am grateful to have a linen and wool coverlet, made in the 1830s in Ohio. I also have a photo, taken some years later, of the house in which the coverlet was probably made. I have these, and other family items, because they weren’t thrown away. Every generation deserves to be remembered.

    • “Every generation deserves to be remembered.” – how does this work? For how many generations do you think we need to remember? 2, 10, 50?
      No, I think every loved person needs to be held in cherished memory, but can gracefully fade away when no one has any real memories.
      Beyond that memories become worn anecdotes.

  6. Women’s lives leave such fragile trails. If you were a man, and your great-grandfather had left you his sword and scabbard or his hand-chased helmet, you would think nothing of offering them to a museum or historical society along with a fascinating account of his heroism. But the stuff of women’s experiences, their skills and wisdom and their everyday heroic adventures of survival, get left on the cottage floor to decay unremembered. Perhaps someone can pen a short story or poem about Blue Bear and Gran. Give her a voice before she is forgotten. She loved you. Best wishes!

    • There’s a marvelous book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich called “The Age of Homespun” that goes over just this phenomenon of the men getting property, valuables and fame etc, but the handmade crafts that make a house a home get passed down fairly anonymously through the women, and then largely forgotten. But oh, the stories they tell…

  7. I would keep this bear and let someone else dispose of him after you’re gone. I have kon-mari’d out the wazoo but there are items of tender attachment that I will never let go, most from childhood, including in my case a pale pink crocheted poodle with pompom hair and rhinestone button eyes made by my grandmother just for me. I will never part with her. Someone without attachment who has been lucky enough to inherit part of my estate, the good part, the real estate or the bank account, can have that responsibility as pay back.

    PS If you would like your Blue Bear to come and live with my Pink Poodle, that could be arranged.

  8. I would repair and restuff the bear, or, if it’s too far gone, take some pictures and then incorporate a piece of fur or the eyes into a new handmade project for a young person in your family. If that’s too much work right now, or you don’t have the right recipient, put it away and you can come back to it later.

  9. You keep blue bunny like I kept purple bugs bunny and some day when you no longer need him he will mysteriously dissapear and move on to another child. That is what blue and purple bunnies do.

    • Cindy, thanks for sharing these poems. Rich imagery: “…the bruise-colored dusk of the New World,” the pet dog bones buried beneath Exit Nine. Sigh… Blue Bear and Gran deserve their own poem, or at least a sweet lullaby. Best wishes.

    • Thank you so very much for these, Cindy. I’m always surprised, though I shouldn’t be, by how poetry cuts straight to the heart of the reader, and the heart of things. The Hilton poem, in particular, really resonated with me.

  10. I washed about five or more of my daughter’s cloth dolls a few years ago. You have never seen so many heads in a washing machine of on a line. Stuffing was all over the house and yard. They were not special, so I quietly threw them away. She was so sad. She was 40 years old and missed her dolls.

    Keep Blue Bear and mend him. Take that nasty stuffing and give him some polyester. I have gotten rid of things and still mourn their loss.

  11. It has often been said during our trudge through this world that the reason we don’t have more literature by women is because women wrote nothing. Recipe books, letters, stories were all written by women. Men took women’s writing, women’s voices and cut them up to make the spines for books. Yes, they have found the still readable strips in books.

    Nuns canvases were shreds of canvas sewn together. Only when art historians looked at the back of the pictures nuns painted did they find this. The men’s/brothers’ canvas is whole.

    Men say, “So?” Women have been given short shrift, no respect for their creations.

    Women’s creations were mostly ephemera, while men made more concrete objects that endure yet.

    I could go on, but I won’t.

    You grandmother probably used the brightest colors and modern fabrics to make you happy. Honor her. Don’t listen to Kon Mari…sp?

    I know stories from my g-g-grandfather and g-g-grandmother’s time. Mama told me the things she knew of her family. One of the first things I remember is that my g-grandmother went to college. Yes, she did. I found her name in the college papers.

  12. Hi Kelly,
    A very compelling story! A little quick research on Ancestry reveals even more compelling information about Caroline. She came to the U.S. when she was a little girl of 5 or 6 with her father and sister, after her mother died in a house fire. They settled in Wisconsin. Hallvard immigrated as a young man of 20, and he married Caroline in 1910. If you are interested in having photos of these relatives (including Caroline as a young child), send me your email address. I’d be happy to pass them along.

    • Thank you Chris!!! That is amazing. Wow. I’m trying to absorb this. Sorry to have been slow to reply but I’ve been out in the woods. I’d love to see pics: [email protected] Again, thank you.

  13. I loved your story, and enjoyed the comments just as much! Got shivers when I came to Chris’s reply. Little pieces of the puzzle all coming together to make your life. I would cut a piece of the blue fabric along with an eye button and use it in another project. Then you will not have guilt, and still retain your story.

  14. I have many items that were handmade for me by loving Gramas and other family members. I grew up appreciating the time and love that went into those things. It has also made me want to do the same for my children. Don’t let go of a tie to your past, its those things that make us respect what we have and who we have become.

  15. We have a bear much like your Blue Bear in our family. His name is “TBear2” and belonged to my aunt and my mom when they were young. He lived with my plush collection (serving as the foundation for other miscellaneous critters to sit or lean on) for many years before going back to live with my aunt when my parents downsized and moved and all my non-sentimental plush were donated. I will one day re-acquire TBear2, as I’m actually listed as his guardian when my aunt is gone (it’s in her will, really!), so I’m trying to decide where this poor tattered guy (held together largely by the sweater he’s wearing) will be housed once he (and the small rocking chair he reclines on) come to live in our small home. And while I’m all for purging my life of unloved objects that clutter it and not bringing in more clutter, TBear2 will absolutely be welcome, as I know how much he’s meant to my mom and aunt. Some things you just have to hold onto a little longer. (Of course, the story of the Velveteen Rabbit still makes me weep, so I’m probably not the person to talk to about old stuffed toys…)

  16. Perhaps my response comes a bit late but I have been thinking seriously about your dilemma. This is for three reasons: 1) my grandmother was a rescuer of unloved dolls, 2) my mother was a maker of many bears and 2) I myself am the maker of many things. All of us made things that we gave or donated in the hopes that others would receive the love given with them and that would come to love the things we gave.

    When an item is handmade, it takes on a life of its own. The creator, I speak from experience on this, has let go of the product when the creation leaves her hands (frequently forgetting entirely that she has even created it), and the object becomes wholly different as it lives in the heart of the owner.

    That sweet blue bear is your own, although it came to life at your grandmother’s doing. Her heart had completed its task, and even as a child you understood the transfer of love that this meant.

    I have had to deal with bears, dolls, and even a puppet made by loved ones, and I have tried to find ways to respect the original hearts’ intention in them by re-homing items to places where they would be appreciated and by decorating seasonally with the items I have kept.

    But I think your bear, given his fragile health, might warrant something different. If this were my bear, I would search out local artisan who makes shadow box art and I would have the bear fitted into a proper frame with some other small family mementoes as a nod to the past with an eye to the future. Just as our handmade bears are, we also come from a background that deserves to be acknowledged.

    This is something that KonMari fails to consider as she rallies people to top up landfills. It is the matter of the human heart–and that makes it of utmost importance. It is because the question has bothered you sufficiently to ask others, that I answer: save the bear. Live without regrets.

  17. I am so touched by your post, and by the responses, that I’ll not say much other than, in some way, is this not the question of our time? How do we carry our ancestors and elders gifts and burdens while our most pressing inheritance proves to be something invisible, someone else’s wish-for-the-future-that cannot decay and that both weighs us down and reminds us of whence we came even while we’re worried about where our trajectory takes us?

    no wonder blue bear perplexes, he is rich in symbol

    • oops, sorry about the lack of possessives (ancestors’ and elders’) and the forgotten uppercase and punctuation of the last sentence. I don’t suppose that kept you from getting what I meant. πŸ™‚

  18. I also have struggled with sentimental pieces that are made with questionable fibers. My mom crocheted a single blanket in her youth (she’s not the most crafty person) and it’s made of 100% acrylic yarn. What to do with it? This article might interest you about fast fashion and your ongoing struggles to create a uniform outfit. I’ve slowly been weeding out synthetics in my own wardrobe and in my life. That still doesn’t solve the issue of sentimentality though. Thank you for your thought provoking post.

    http://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/no-one-wants-your-old-clothes/ar-AAim8tF?srcref=rss&mc_cid=0b797dd7e5&mc_eid=3ec9a28155

    • I tweeted this link (I say belatedly) as it is indeed very much why I’m working on the uniform idea. Thanks!

  19. Gosh, again, I am humbled, and grateful, for all the responses this post has generated. I’m so impressed with insight, wisdom and experience in these comments! Thank you, all.

    Though this is not a democracy, the many votes to save Blue Bear have won the day. I’ll fix him and keep him, at least for a while longer. I wanted to fix him and post again right away showing the repairs, but that is–as usual–taking longer than expected. But I will do.

    This next bit is to some extent an answer to @Wendy above, but also sort of my general conclusion:

    The process of confronting Blue Bear has been invaluable. Things become clutter when they are not considered. Blue Bear was in fact clutter before I wrote the post. Now, he is heavily considered, newly appreciated and finally, after all this time, he has accomplished what I think he was meant to do all along: bring me closer to my great grandmother. At this point, I think it would be okay to release him, because that gift of closeness is given in spirit, not in poly fluff, but out of respect I will repair him and contemplate him some more.

    I also wanted to give a special shout out to Chris who used the magic of Ancestry.com to give me some more info and even pics of Caroline and Halvard. Maybe I’ll share those with ya’ll in the repair post. Also, my mom has just read this post, and after we talk I might have some more info. to add to the big picture. So stay tuned!

  20. This is such a wonderful post, and wonderful comments. I’m happy you’ve decided to keep the bear — that was going to be my comment, keep him!
    My mother got rid of all of my stuffed animals a few years ago (I’ve forgiven her) save one, a rag doll named Katie that she made me for my first Christmas. My parents had next to no income my first year of life except for a small teacher’s pension, so money that Christmas was too tight to buy anything from stores. Cabbage Patch dolls had just gotten big, so my mom made me one out of scrap fabric and yarn, with eyes and hair that matched mine. My grandmother shipped out my mom’s old doll cradle to go with it. Katie is pretty filthy looking, and has a gigantic red ink stain on her arm from when I tried to tattoo her, so she looks like she’s got a knife wound or something, but she is definitely not going in the trash, at least not in my lifetime.

    Also, re: Ancestry, have you thought about trying to do some of your own genealogy research? I started researching my dad’s side of the family because I was frustrated that I had no idea where they came from, just vaguely Western European. My dad’s side of the family is older than my mom’s, and a lot of people died young, so there were very few stories told and little voiced interest in roots. I started researching on Ancestry (bought a six month subsciption and got every cent worth researching like crazy, then I cancelled) and also took a trip out to my grandmother’s hometown. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, and was really surprised at how much I found, dispelled some wrong info, even solved a family mystery. The best part really was that although nobody had kept up with the family history, when I sent around the results of my research everyone got really excited, especially my dad and his older brother. It doesn’t exactly change your day to day maybe, but there really is something grounding about knowing when and why and from where your family came to the US. There’s a reason why remembrance of ancestors is so central to so many cultures.

    • Thanks, Kate. I have indeed been considering Ancestry.com, and I suspect a lot of the research has been done for me by distant cousins, because Chris, another Root Simple reader, nicely went on there for me and found lots of stuff on that branch of the family. As I am lazy, I rather like the idea of joining just to see what all has already been done for me! πŸ˜‰

      But yes, I agree that it does ground us to acknowledge and appreciate our ancestors. Learning about Caroline has been instructive in that wqy, and now I want to go down this path with my other ancestors–to make them come alive in my imagination.

  21. Thanks, Kelly – for the thought provoking post and for being willing to expose your consideration-process to us all. πŸ˜€

    I admit, I felt a touch of sadness when it seemed you were going to ‘throw away’ blue bear, but too, I figured it was a two-layered sadness. 1) asking me to look at the things in my life that meant well but outgrew the meaning and 2) how our relationship with “things,” though try as we might to not imbue meaning and just insist there’s only material reality (and here I refer to “we” as a culture, not, most likely, you or your readers), is really relationships with an ‘other.’

    Anyway, I just say this by way of getting to the point that I understand where you’re at with Blue Bear – how he’s done his good job and it doesn’t fundamentally matter if he’s physically in your house.

    Also, you might want to look around for community access to Ancestry.com – for example our county archives subscribes and is available to community members who make an appointment.

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