J.B. is a world traveler, having visited the Caribbean, Belize and Mexico as a stowaway in Maryrose Nicolazzi's suitcase. His soft, maroon body was fashioned out of a beloved Gap T-shirt. His blue knit socks were cut from an old World War II sailor's cap. His tan corduroy hat is perched backward on his little head. Maryrose always told her husband to wear his hat the same way. She said it made him look "very cute."
J.B. is short for Johnny Boy, and everything about the small stuffed bear comes from Maryrose's late husband, John. He died in May 2011, at age 86, after the couple had booked a Valentine's Day cruise to celebrate their 10th anniversary. When the cruise arrived earlier this year, Maryrose stowed her grief, packed her handmade bear and hit the high seas.
She took sightseeing pictures with J.B. She perched him on a donkey statue in Cozumel, Mexico. She posed with him on a sparkling beach in Belize. He was a companion of sorts, a reminder of her husband and a way to share his memory with others.
"It was the best thing I could have done for myself and for so many people I met," Maryrose said. "People would ask about the bear. I'd share my stories, and sometimes they'd share theirs. Many thought the bear was such a good idea and took the suggestion home with them," including a couple she met who'd just lost a son to suicide.
"I felt like I was doing good, bringing comfort to others, and it helped me with my grieving," Maryrose said.
After John's death, Maryrose sought grief counseling at Gulfside Regional Hospice. Someone there suggested that a memory bear made of John's old clothing might help her through her loss. Maryrose brought in the materials, and volunteers carefully cut and stitched to create the soft bear filled with special memories.
That Gap T-shirt? John loved it, especially sleeping in it, Maryrose said. He'd head to the shower; she would race to the clothes dryer.
"Hon, is my shirt ready yet?" John would call out. Maryrose would dash with the shirt, snug and warm.
It was one of many small routines that defined their relationship. His hand-written messages for special occasions were another. The day after the burial, Maryrose found a poem for her upcoming birthday that John had been writing. It was still under the tablecloth, where John had quickly slid it when Maryrose walked into the room.
"We did not want to waste any precious time, as there was an age difference," said Maryrose, who was more than a decade younger than John.
"John always said I was a gift from God to him, but it was I who received the most precious gift, and it really is about the quality of a relationship, not the quantity of time you are together," she said.
The two met through their common interest in traveling. After 16 years in California, Maryrose moved to New Port Richey, working as a store manager.
A widow and new in town, she was looking for safe activities for a 60-something woman. A notice in the newspaper said the Knights of Columbus at St. Michael's Catholic Church were arranging a cruise. She called the number listed for the travel director. John answered the line.
The two hit it off, and John kept calling Maryrose. Finally they met for dinner. A few months later they married.
"He had an impact every day on people, loved to sing You Are My Sunshine, and he made me laugh," Maryrose said.
Losing him was hard. Having a piece of him to hold on to helped. When Gulfside volunteers delivered her memory bear two days before her Valentine's Day cruise, Maryrose decided to take J.B. along.
Sonia Quinones, the director of bereavement and volunteers at Gulfside, said the bears are the handiwork of 10 volunteers who understand the emotional impact their plush creations can have. They help ease the loss. They keep good memories close.
Quinones recalls one child who specifically asked that his grandparent's clothes not be washed so that the bear would carry the familiar smell.
Maryrose often dabs a bit of John's Aqua Velva on J.B.'s cap.
"These clothes — this little bear — have the essence of John," she said. "With J.B., John is always with me."