Every time Gina Ramos looks at her teddy bear, she remembers her father. The bear is a deep indigo color, made from one of her father’s shirts. “It’s a blue shirt I had given him on his birthday, his last birthday,” Ramos said. Her 62-year-old father, José Womhar Ramos Hernández, died in December.
Claudia Araceli Ramirez Pereira’s bear is blue and white plaid with a touch of brown, made from her father’s favorite winter jacket. “This year he didn’t get to wear it,” Ramirez said. Her 70-year-old father Lorenzo Ramirez died in October.
The women, who both live in Ciudad Juárez, have found comfort in their “memory bears.” They’re among thousands of people on both sides of the border robbed of the chance to be with their dying loved ones in hospitals during the pandemic.
The memory bears stitched together by Eréndira Guerrero, in her small home sewing room in Ciudad Juárez, are custom keepsakes for the families coping with a death during the pandemic. “It’s a little bit of their essence from the clothing of their loved ones,” Guerrero said. The items include “shirts, blouses, pajamas, team uniforms” selected by a relative to remember someone who died.
The hum of her sewing machine fills her home as Guerrero tries to keep up with demand during the pandemic. In the past year she’s made more than 100 memory bears and has a growing waiting list of orders. She makes each bear herself. There are other seamstresses making bears and Guerrero encourages those who need to work from home during the pandemic to do their part.
“I’m very blessed. God put me here for a reason,” she said.
A native of Ciudad Juárez, Guerrero learned to sew as a child from her grandmother and mother. She started making traditional cloth dolls dressed in Mexican folklorico outfits and later branched out to include teddy bears. She crafted memory bears before the pandemic but the mass deaths from COVID created a need to “close the circle” for many families in mourning on both sides of the border.
She’s seen the look on the faces of relatives as memories come flooding back when they get their bear and hold it for the first time. “It’s a tremendously moving moment. This is such a powerful and impactful scene,” Guerrero said.
She, too, sheds tears when people pick up a bear, but the pandemic means “I can’t hug or console them,” Guerrero said.
But the bears get plenty of hugs from her customers.
“I hug my bear every night,” Ramos said. When her father was hospitalized in Ciudad Juárez following a heart attack, COVID-19 restrictions prohibited her from being with him as he died.
Ramos treasures the bear made by Guerrero from the blue shirt her father wore when he blew out the candles on his last birthday cake. “She gave me back a little piece of my father so I could hug him, say goodbye to him, say all all the things I didn’t have a chance to say to him,” she said.
The 26-year old image consultant in Ciudad Juárez saw her father for the last time on her own birthday, Dec. 13. He died three days later. Her father’s memory bear not only provides comfort but inspiration.
“My father with his love taught me to keep striving. Even though this is hard and breaks my heart, I will keep moving forward,” said Ramos, her voice cracking.
Ramirez also felt a strong connection to her bear from the first time she held it. “When I had the bear in my hands, I held it like a person. I felt like it could see me, hear me, because of the characteristics of the face,” she said.
Ramirez wanted a bear to “deposit her pain” after her father unexpectedly died of COVID-19 in October. She said after she managed to get him into a hospital, she felt a sense of relief. He gestured he was fine when he was given oxygen. But 45 minutes later, the husband and father of six daughters died.
“He did not look that sick. We did not expect it,” said the 46-year old sales manager for a cosmetics company.
The lack of mourning rituals and a proper funeral made it difficult to accept the loss. Ramirez said she fell into a deep depression and cried often. Her therapist recommended she find a way to connect with her father’s memory. She decided to get a memory bear.
The bear made from the cloth from her father’s favorite plaid jacket was a sounding board for the things she didn’t get to say to comfort and reassure him in those final moments, “to say goodbye and tell him that we are here taking care of my mother, that he can continue on his path and not to worry,” Ramirez said.
The bear helped Ramirez accept her loss.
“Now when I look at my bear, I’m conscious of the reality my father is gone but I have his memory. And every time I see the bear, it’s a comfort.”
Cover photo: Claudia Araceli Ramirez Pereira displays a bear made from a shirt that belonged to her deceased father, Lorenzo Ramirez. The message on the bear reads: “This is clothing I used to wear. Each time you hug it, I want you to know that I am there. With love, Dad.” (Luis Torres/Special to El Paso Matters)
Correction: Jose Womhar Ramos Hernandez died after suffering a heart attack. An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect cause of death.