FOREST LAKE, Minn. - At an address often visited by heartbreak, the day has come for mending.
"It was one of his favorite plaid shirts," explains Rita Johnson, sitting behind a table at Mattson Funeral Home, as scissors slice through the fabric of a favorite shirt once worn by her husband.
Gary Johnson didn't need GQ Magazine to tell him flannel was always in style. It's the reason the first few cuts into the gray wool material hurt, just a bit, Rita Johnson. But nothing can hurt as much as what she has already endured.
"Day after Christmas, he died of multiple myeloma," she says about her husband of 41 years.
Now, three months after his death, the newly cut pieces of Gary Johnson's shirt are being re-assembled into a teddy bear.
"Any picture I have he was in a plaid shirt," says Rita Johnson, "so I thought this will make a nice bear."
The "Heartley Bears" have been created at the Forest Lake funeral home the past six years.
"It makes us feel really good," says Susan Hutchison, who launched the project with her husband, Paul, following the death of Paul's grandfather, Hartley Alden, for whom the bears are named.
When Alden passed away in 2008, his wife and daughters gathered his favorite shirts from fishing trips and family outings. They then used the shirts' fabric to make teddy bears for Alden's children and grandchildren.
"There were a lot of tears and remembering the clothing," says Susan Hutchison.
Inspired, the Hutchisons, who co-own the funeral home, established a Heartley Bear nonprofit organization to bring comfort to others who have lost loved ones.
Twice a year, in spring and fall, the funeral home opens its doors to grieving families -- customers and non-customers alike.
"Between 800 and 900 bears have been made," says Susan Hutchison.
Rose Buske cuts into a shirt, once worn by her son Jess who died of cancer in January at the age of 56.
"That's what my girlfriends used to tell me; Jess is like a big overstuffed teddy bear," she smiles.
Across the table, Jess's wife, Michelle Buske, works with the pieces of one of Jess' favorite Vikings jean shirts.
"I'll be able to cuddle his jean shirt now," she says.
Jess's daughter, Lacea Buske, is working on a bear of her own, made from another of her dad's shirts. She pushes in stuffing, assesses her work, and then pushes in a little more. "My dad was a little bit more round," she smiles.
Over the years the Hutchisons have recruited a small army of sewing-machine-toting volunteers who help with the bear making, some former Heartley Bear recipients looking for an opportunity to give back.
The grief is still fresh for Lisa and Chad Monson. After trying for 13 years to have a baby, in March, their daughter Ava was stillborn.
"This blanket was actually a blanket she was wrapped in at the hospital," says Lisa Monson, as she cut the blanket's soft pink fabric.
Ava's picture, taken just after her birth, sits on the table in front of the couple. "And now we're going to be able to create a bear and put it in her room and remember her for the rest of our life," says Lisa Monson.
The Hutchisons have seen firsthand the healing power of the bears.
"I just hope it gives them peace," says Susan Hutchison, "a little bit of sunshine on their hardest days."
Two hours after arriving, Rita Johnson stitches a set of buttons on the face of her gray flannel bear. She notes that her husband had blue eyes, "so we went with blue for the eyes." She looks at the bear made from her husband's shirt and smiles. "It's just him," she says.
The stuffed bear wearing Ava's name is just another step in the recovery for her parents.
"We'll take it one day at time," says Lisa Monson tearfully, "and are thankful for the blessings that came to our life."
What better to bring comfort on days that bring hurt, than a bear hug?
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