Good Life | Love in a bottle: Man’s intricate passion lives on as reminder to widow

Kathy Brown demonstrates the patience required in making an “impossible bottle.” Brown published a second edition of “The Love Story of Impossible Bottles” as a way to remember and pay tribute to her late husband, Chris Brown, who died in a skydiving accident in 2012.
Kathy Brown demonstrates the patience required in making an “impossible bottle.” Brown published a second edition of “The Love Story of Impossible Bottles” as a way to remember and pay tribute to her late husband, Chris Brown, who died in a skydiving accident in 2012. Photo provided

Of the hundreds of unique “impossible bottles” her husband assembled over the years, Kathy Brown loves the one he gave her the best.

It’s not only because she can still remember the day he surprised her with it — filled with items representing her Chinese heritage and their life together in State College — or because after his death, she placed their wedding rings inside. And it’s not just because the bottle’s delicate, curved neck and shape show Chris Brown’s high skill level at an extremely difficult hobby.

It’s those reasons combined, and because for Kathy, the bottle is a precious example of Chris’ unique brand of impossible bottles. It was the personal touch that Chris put in the bottles that made them so special, said Kathy, who authored “A Love Story of Impossible Bottles.” The book is dedicated to and inspired by her husband, who died in a parachuting accident in July 2012 at age 52.

“I really feel like these bottles symbolize the heart,” Kathy said. “Usually we don’t let everything in, so when something is special, you want to capture it, and I think that is the whole idea.”

Anyone with patience (and lots of it) is capable of making what is known as an impossible bottle, which appears to defy logic by having objects inside that are clearly too large to fit through the bottleneck. The best-known impossible bottles are those with ships inside, but many other objects will work. Whether it’s a book of matches, a deck of cards or a picture frame, it’s a matter of deconstructing an item and then working painstakingly inside the bottle to put it back in its original form.

Chris started making impossible bottles in the early 2000s, and it quickly became one of his many hobbies. His son, Scott Snyder, thinks it was a stress reliever for his dad, who loved anything with a challenge.

“He would just see things and be inspired,” Snyder said in a phone interview from his home in Florida. “He wasn’t into selling them and stuff and just wanted to give them to people as special gifts.”

Chris and Kathy married in 2011, but they knew each other as co-workers at Penn State for more than a decade before that. Kathy remembers hearing that Chris made bottles, but she didn’t realize the scope of the hobby or its significance until she saw for herself.

“To put a deck of cards in, that’s really easy ... but it’s the personal elements. You’re trying to get as much as possible to capture that person’s characteristics by how you design, by how you lay out,” she said. “Sometimes it takes months or years to complete.”

After his death, Kathy found some of Chris’ works in progress, as well as the start of a book he’d always wanted to publish. Loose-leaf paper in a binder provided the bones for a “how-to” book, and there also were narratives that went along with bottles Chris had created for his grandfather and beloved dog.

“When he died, I knew I wanted to do something, and the first thing that came to mind was about his book,” Kathy said.

But she wasn’t quite sure how to tackle it and wanted to somehow take the book beyond a tutorial. The book originally was going to be called “Impossible Bottles,” but a new title — and format — came to Kathy at the Hardcore Mudd Run at Tussey Mountain a few months after Chris’ death.

Watching their family and friends run, climb and slither through a course that Chris had planned to participate in, Kathy said she could visualize the bottle she wanted to create to commemorate the event. She also pictured the story in the book that would go along with it, as well as others about family and love.

She spent the next 10 months writing “A Love Story of Impossible Bottles,” which includes the how-to that Chris had started, paired with stories of favorite, special bottles.

“We all tried to figure out ways to handle the grief, and I think (the book) was a pretty awesome way to carry on his legacy and fulfill his dreams,” Snyder said.

Kathy said she experienced a type of catharsis while writing the book and working on bottles using the techniques Chris had taught her.

“I even felt that Chris’ spirit was with me, too,” she said.

She remembers feeling his spirit with her one day in particular, when the Mudd Run bottle was not going the way she’d planned. She had the urge to throw it across the room before feeling what she can only describe as Chris intervening.

“I remember he said if you get frustrated, put it away, don’t do anything or you’ll regret it. I just felt the little jolt and then I put it away,” Kathy said. “The next day I woke up with different ideas to continue the work and try different methods.”

Kathy published “A Love Story of Impossible Bottles” through Lulu Press, Inc. in 2013, hitting her self-imposed deadline of releasing the book a year after Chris’ death. She considers it a gift and permanent tribute to the love of her life; she released the second edition in November. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major distributors.

She continues to make impossible bottles, including completing some of those Chris never had the chance to.

“When I retired from the Air Force, Kathy finished a bottle that was one my dad had started for me,” Snyder said. “That is one of my prized possessions.”