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Mother plans living memorial for daughter

In the memory of her daughter who died two years ago, Nancy MacKerrow hopes to convince community members to donate money for 27,000 new street trees in Spokane, a plan she calls The Susie Forest. (April 2004 photo) (Rebecca Nappi / The Spokesman-Review)
In the memory of her daughter who died two years ago, Nancy MacKerrow hopes to convince community members to donate money for 27,000 new street trees in Spokane, a plan she calls The Susie Forest. (April 2004 photo) (Rebecca Nappi / The Spokesman-Review)

The trunks on some of the trees on Spokane’s Overbluff Road bulge with what look like tumors. These trees have served the neighborhood well, providing shade and beauty for decades, but now they look worn out.

Nancy MacKerrow poses for a photo in front of one of the aging trees. She is 67. She knows she could be excused for bowing out of an active life, even though she is not that old. But two years ago, her 36-year-old daughter, Susie Stephens, was hit and killed by a bus in St. Louis.

When parents lose a child, the world as they know it ends. Parents then have a choice. They can withdraw from that bleak world without their child, or they can respond in the way of Martin Luther, the 16th century religious leader. If he knew that the world would end tomorrow, Luther said, “I would plant a tree in my garden.”

Nancy has chosen the tree-planting route. Her goal is to convince community members to donate money for 27,000 new trees on Spokane streets over the next 15 years. She’s calling it The Susie Forest.

A week from Monday, as part of the agenda, Nancy will speak to the Spokane City Council about the plan. She’ll ask civic leaders to set an example for potential tree donors by buying and planting a street tree. She’ll say: “In 20 years, some of the laws you’ve passed will be rescinded or ignored, but your trees will still be giving to the city.”

Nancy is nervous about speaking to the council.

She is a shy woman who would have had little trouble becoming more reclusive after the death of her daughter. Instead, she’s become a sort of tree ambassador for the city’s Reforest Spokane project.

The story of Nancy’s journey out of grief unfolds on a long walk along Overbluff, a street a few blocks east of Manito Park. Nancy lived here when her children - Becky, Susie and Jack - were youngsters. In the 1970s, the children skipped under the shade of the trees. Nancy walks upon the same sidewalk where Susie once rode her bicycle.

Susie was as outgoing as Nancy is introverted. She was a bicyclist, a mountain climber, a world traveler and an activist for the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists. The ironies of Susie’s death could have sent Nancy into despair. Susie was a pedestrian activist killed in a crosswalk by a bus driven by a man who looked away for one moment, a man fined only $500.

Instead of walking into bitterness, Nancy simply walks and sees the empty spaces in neighborhoods where trees belong.

Jim Flott, the city’s urban forester, has identified 27,000 locations throughout the city where street trees are needed. The new trees will replace old and dying trees or fill in spots where trees have never been planted. The city will pay for some trees, but at $300 a pop, the budget won’t stretch to buy all of them.

Reforest Spokane began after the tree-bashing ice storm of 1996. Nancy took this on as her cause less than a year ago. She’s already paid for six trees herself, and 17 more trees have been donated or pledged to The Susie Forest because of Nancy’s efforts. The city and the donor together select the type of tree and its location within the identified need area. Donors are encouraged to hold a tree-planting ceremony, and Nancy has vowed to attend as many of those as she can.

“When Nancy talks and explains what she’s doing, it’s from the heart,” says Marion Severud, community relations supervisor for Spokane Parks and Recreation Department. “Without that personal message, people don’t respond.”

As Nancy walks a street bereft of trees, she explains what is missing.

“Trees calm traffic because they give the illusion of a narrower street,” she says. “Trees clean the air and hold the water. They drop their leaves and then you have to rake, which is good exercise, and if you’ve got kids, they can jump in those leaves. Even winter trees are beautiful.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote:

What do I know.

But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,

to see what is plain; what the sun

lights up willingly.

In this April of Arbor Day celebrations and Easter’s life-from-death message, Nancy knows this: What was given to her was the birth and death of a beloved child. The sun lights up for her a vast garden beyond the walls of her own grief. Nancy will plant some more trees there, hoping others do the same.



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