A garden as living memorial: Tree plantings recall Covid deaths

Tiffany Williams stands next to a tree planted in memory of her late mother, Dorchester’s Jacqualine Williams, last Friday, April 28, in the Dr. Loesch Family Park. The event was part of a community effort with MIT’s Poetic Justice group’s Black Forest project – a nationwide project kicking off in Dorchester to remember the lives of those lost to Covid-19, particularly people of color.
Seth Daniel photo

As Tiffany Williams put the finishing touches on her planting of a tree in Dorchester’s Dr. Loesch Family Park on Wainwright Street last Friday, it was an exercise in celebrating a new life, and remembering one lost. For her, adding a tree in the park was about creating a living memorial to her mother, Jacqualine Williams, a Dorchester woman who was one of many who died during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I started to think about how I could remember my mom; I figured that if I planted a tree, it would be here a long time – keep her alive in a sense,” said Williams. “That was my thought.”

Friends and families from Dorchester, as well as volunteers from Speak for the Trees (SFTT), Codman Square Neighborhood Council (CSNC), and MIT’s Poetic Justice Black Forest project, came together Friday in one of the first efforts to remember lives lost to Covid in what will be a nationwide project this year.

While a pilot program ran in Detroit last year, the Loesch Park project kicked off a tour that will include plantings in cities like New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco over this year.

In the park off Wainright Street, participants planted 12 trees on April 28, which coincided with Arbor Day, in memory of 14 people connected to the community who passed away in the pandemic.

“There were more than hundreds of thousands of lives lost and we’re planting trees for them across the country and we’re starting here and now,” said Ekene Ijeoma, director of MIT’s Poetic Justice group that is carrying out the ‘Black Forest’ project.

Georine Pierre, of the Black Forest project, Councillor Ruthzee Louijeune, Cynthia Loesch Johnson of Codman Square Neighborhood Council, Claire Corcoran of Speak For the Trees, David Meshoulam of Speak For The Trees, and Jerel Ferguson of Speak For The Trees. Seth Daniel photos

Danielle Wood of MIT, Georine Pierre of the Black Forest project, Ekene Ijeoma of MIT’s Poetic Justice group, Councillor Ruthzee Louijeune, David Meshoulam of Speak For The Trees, and Cynthia Loesch Johnson of Codman Square Neighborhood Council.

Tiffany Williams said her mother had suffered a stroke in October 2019, and though she got better in early 2020, the family had a hard time providing the extensive care required. So, they enrolled her in a nursing home in February 2020, and not long after she fatally contracted Covid.

Like many in the community – particularly people of color – Covid hit hard and often, leaving families without a lot of closure due to the restrictions in place for funerals and gatherings at the time.

Tiffany has done several things in remembering her mother, such as continuing to care for and nourish plants that were part of her mother’s funeral service. While tree plantings are available from the City of Boston in other locations, Loesch Park is close to the family home in Dorchester and it was an event that Tiffany could volunteer at, helping to plant the tree devoted to her mother with her own hands.

“I have her only grandson and I thought this would be a way for him to come back here to a place where he can find her and find out about her when he grows up,” she said.

The project includes planting and caring for the trees, yet each one will also carry a QR code that can be scanned with a smart phone. That code will take folks to a phone bank curated by Black Forest to access recordings made by family and friends remembering that specific person. That was comforting, said Dorchester’s Melissa Dagher, who planted a tree in honor of her family member, George ‘Jojo’ Gracia.

“I think to keep his memory alive in a positive way in our family is meaningful,” she said. “We have a large family and having him pass away so early has been so hard for us. It’s a place his mom could potentially come and visit. It’s right near my home as well. It’s just nice to have a living tribute that honors him and remembers him after what happened.”

CSNC President Cynthia Loesch Johnson said the Black Forest memorial project was very appropriate in the park named after her father – the late Dr. Bill Loesch – who fought for health equity.

“These trees will not just provide shade, they will allow us to remember lives lost in our community,” she said. “We will be able to remember our family, our friends and our neighbors who were lost to Covid-19. We know how bad our community was hit, especially because of the health inequities.”

Before volunteers and Arborists Harrison McPhee Corp. nestled 12 new trees along the pathway and perimeter of the park, there was a moment of silence and a reading of 14 names of people who will be remembered there.

David Meshoulam, SFTT’s director, said it was such an appropriate way to remember loved ones lost amidst the chaos of the pandemic. “We’re grateful this project resonates with people in this way,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any more beautiful way to remember people than with trees. They grow and they live a long time. They die every year and then revive every year. It’s just very appropriate, especially in this case.”

For more information on the Black Forest project, go to media.mit.edu/projects/blackforest/overview.

DJ Whysham provided music at the event, along with her dog ‘Balenci.’

David Meshoulam, of Speak For The Trees; Georine Pierre of Black Forest project.

David Meshoulam, executive director of Speak For The Trees.

Resident Hilani Morales read the names of 14 community members that were lost to COVID-19 and led a moment of silence.

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