This season of hope and expectation has also been for me a time for grieving and for celebrating the lives of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. May our ancestors smile on these celebrations as they rest in peace.
My wife’s grandfather James Smith was a dearly beloved Irishman, small in stature but enormous in personality. We remember him as the patriarch of a family whose musical roots predate him in fascinating ways. His mother accompanied his sister and him on piano at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, where their Vaudeville act called “The Smith Kiddies” enjoyed a short run. They won a talent competition at the Orpheum Theater in Sioux City that facilitated the trip. His son Steve, who frequently comments here, is a tremendous musician in his own right. A church organist since age 8, he has also played saxophone since his secondary school days with the late veteran Iowa Jazz Educator Marty Crandall. He also played with Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Hall of Famers The Cellophane Spectacle. Steve studied music at Iowa State University. There he wrote arrangements for the marching band. He returned to Marcus to join his father’s insurance business, a county mutual and independent agency that thrives to this day. Steve married Linda Lott (Smith), a design specialist and drummer. Their act, Gentle Persuasion, played dance jobs well into the 1980s. He continues to play jazz standards, adjudicate high school band competitions and collaborate with young musicians exploring their solo talents.
Steve’s eldest, my wife, studied music at Luther College, where I met her in 1999. We have traveled the world playing music together and we came to grad. school together at Florida State in 2003. She now works as an arts consultant and continues to play clarinet and saxophone and sing in our church choir. I met Steve’s son Chris at a jazz camp in Creston, Iowa, where we both played drum set in the same big band. Chris also went on to advanced studies in music at the Manhattan School of Music. There he studied with John Riley, who plays with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, among others. He then worked as a drummer in New York for a couple of years before going on to further studies at Northern Colorado, where he will soon finish a doctorate in music with his research on Mel Lewis. These, Jimmy’s survivors, carry on the Smith family legacy of musicianship and community.
I just received word last night that my Ugandan host father’s neighbor died. I knew him only as Hajji, the friendly Mzee (venerable elder) to whom my host family brought dinner each night. His name refers to the pilgrimage that Muslims take to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Hajj lost his wife over ten years ago. After that time, Mr. Magoba (my host father) instructed his children to take Hajj a portion of their family meal every day. On the Muslim holiday Iddi and other Islamic feast days, Hajji would reciprocate by sending special foodstuffs and prepared meals to his neighbors. Now Mr. Magoba’s family are committed Catholics. Having grown up to see the hostility between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. and around the world, Magoba and Hajji represent for me an inspiring example of neighborly love and peacebuilding. Let me say to the community of Ntinda-Kiwatule and all of Hajji’s family, friends and neighbors, nga kitalo: what a tragedy his loss is to us and to all lovers of peace. We shall miss him and remember him fondly as we do all of our ancestors and neighbors.
To other friends and family in the U.S., Uganda and around the world: Merry Christmas, Ssekukkulu amakula, Happy new year, kulika omwaka, and may peace be upon you, as-salaam aleykum!