Beneath the trees, where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Lovable creatures are coming to life in Shelby, thanks to someone with a heart for people—and bears. The special handmade bears of Sue Kulongowski are in demand, made with skills for those who need them most—people yearning for lost loved ones.
The owner of Beary Unique creates intriguing objects from remarkably mundane items that are entrusted to her. And some fascinating stories accompany each.
Kulongowski specializes in Memory Bears, which commemorate those passed by using items they once wore or owned. They range from flannel shirts, bathrobes and T-shirts, to fur coats, baby blankets and more.
“There is a lot of trust that goes into what I do—and I take that very seriously,” she said. “I realize they entrust me with what they’ve held onto, which is probably the very last thing that belonged to their loved one.”
Kulongowski grew up in Dearborn adoring stuffed animals and analyzing each one, re-creating their features with love. At seven, she sewed her own first skirt, complete with zipper, with minimal input from her quilter mom, Dona Kremer.
“It was a disaster, but I didn’t know that—I was too proud,” she said.
Kulongowski’’s dad, former WWJ sportscaster Don Kremer, was equally creative in sports trivia and serving humanity.
“He’d have 14 TVs all going at the same time; he was very good with a remote control. He even found four mistakes in the Trivial Pursuit Sports Editions game and urged them to update it; apparently our family likes to make the world a better place,” she said, laughing.
In the intervening years, she aspired to design dresses, manage a restaurant, and court report before managing a Troy office for a training and management company. Then she unexpectedly met her husband, Paul.
“We were engaged within six weeks and married one year later,” she said. A wedding party photo shows everyone holding stuffed bears, each dressed identically to its human.
When Paul needed back surgery with home care, she volunteered for a layoff. In her spare time, she designed extravagant Heirloom Santas, sparkly T-shirts and jewelry. A local craft store asked to sell them, and the fur-trimmed Santas were vastly popular.
A woman visited the store with vintage World War II tartan from her late mother’s plaid coat. Still struggling with that death, she wanted a lasting remembrance, and Kulongowski thought she could help. She offered to create something with the plaid, but the lady balked.
“I told her I would cut something out of my own shirt to show how it’s done,” she said. “That’s when she cried. And, then I cried.”
An idea was born. The lady handed Kulongowski the material and her trust. The new career grew with a passion, with clients spanning the U.S. and Europe. Some return repeatedly for extra items for other relatives, and Kulongowski tags each with a laminated, personalized card stating the late loved one’s info with picture included.
“When they’re ready to let go of their possessions, I create something in memory of their late relatives,” she said. “It’s an honor.”
When a child lost her dad to the war, Kulongowski sewed a bear from his uniform, personalizing it with a hand-stitched sweatshirt bearing his name. One mother used all of her late teen son’s blue jeans for bears for his friends; then switched to using his khaki pants for more. The widowed wife in a childless couple kept his pajamas and robe hanging behind the bathroom door before surrendering them for two bears.
“One sits on their bed now, and one sits in the living room in his favorite chair,” she said.
A mentally disabled aunt’s pajamas brought comfort to her young nephew after she passed. She’d lived with her married sister’s family and the young boy couldn’t seem to adjust to her absence. So, his mother placed the pajamas bear on the fireplace mantel.
“When the boy was overheard showing the bear to a playmate, she knew he was going to be OK,’ said Kulongowski. “He said, ‘My aunt is still here to hug and she still watches over us, too.’”
A sad 7-year-old missed his grandmother so much that he cried himself to sleep holding a worn-clear photo of her. She’d attended all his hockey games, so Kulongowski made him a bear from his grandma’s commemorative hockey T-shirt, which he now uses as a mascot.
“It’s part of the healing process, and although each piece is labor intensive, I feel it is more than worth it,” she said. “I buy the best material from Grand Rapids for the paw inserts. My husband, a chemist, helped me devise how to work with disintegrating fur, too. We safely preserve it so it stays intact for heirs.”
Happy occasions also need her services. One entailed a well-worn baby blanket that was almost see-through.
“It belonged to a lady’s daughter; she saved it for the grandchild’s birth and I made a bear from it that went to the new mom in the hospital,” Kulongowski said.
She gauges the economy by her sales and this year has been her best yet.
Her bears have imported glass eyes from Germany — sometimes hand painted different colors — variable noses, and jointed arms and heads from materials that will last more than a lifetime. They have loving expressions and open arms, inviting hugs. Items range in price from $1 to upwards of $200, depending on size and special details.
She also restores well-loved stuffed animals for kids and adults, a lost art that few skilled sewers take on.
Her home is a romp like a teddy bears’ picnic. Bears perch everywhere, rest in boxes between shows, and jauntily pose on small furniture. Light dances on their lively, fur-fringed eyes, and they seem to enjoy the tour as much as visitors do.
Kulongowski’s Santas sport Tibetan lamb beards and other furs she crafts include mink, chinchilla, beaver, lynx, seal, fox, curly lamb, mohair, coyote, skunk (also called “street mink”), possum, and sheared muskrat. If there isn’t enough for a full bear or pillow, she trims with it, or makes bracelet cuffs, headbands, golf tees, purses, ornaments or other items with remnants. T-shirts make great pillows, as do the fur coats, from which Kulongowski uses the initials or names on satin linings, too.
Bears that don’t go to specific homes also wear little gold ankle bracelets bearing Kulongowski’s initials.
“I don’t put those on the custom bears because those are personalized for just family,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s right to insert myself into the equation, so they exclusively receive the laminated tags. That way, even if heirs aren’t yet born to know the ancestor, the photo and info are reminders.”
Each year she designs variations, but keeps craft festival involvement to a minimum to take on special orders. She prefers multiple-day festivals so people can return family items after mulling it over the first day.
“A lady came to the Davison show three times before she brought along a curly lamb coat,” she said. “It was a swing coat worn by her grandmother as she escaped Germany with just the clothes on her back during World War II. The grandma wore the coat inside out to not call attention to herself and never took it off; it was all she had.”
Kulongowski made lamb “Mama Bears” for each relative. Her descendant also composed a book containing family recipes as well as the written history from the Old Country to their new home in Cleveland. Each person received a book and bear, remembrances bridging the past and future.
She takes to heart the lesson her clients have taught her: “It’s really never about you, as a businesswoman. Because as soon as you make it about them, things automatically come to you. Good things.”
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.*
—Lyrics to the children’s favorite, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”
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