Tribute to ‘unfailingly supportive’ Aunt Ada

  • Ever generous: the late Ada Nyabongo at her beloved piano (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

    Ever generous: the late Ada Nyabongo at her beloved piano (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)


Dear Sir,

Ada Nyabongo (1926-2020), who was laid to rest on April 3, was a remarkable woman. While I salute her for earning a doctorate in musicology from New York University, this was only a small part of the woman I called “Aunt Ada”.

I lived in her home in Brooklyn while I was a student at Juilliard. She was an accomplished pianist in her own right, a longtime church musician whose interest in personal growth led her to earn an associate degree in organ while in her seventies.

I was grateful for the Steinway in her living room, which gave me respite from my alma mater’s practice rooms, with their generally less-than-stellar pianos — not to mention the subgroup of piano majors who were fond of lurking just out of sight in the hallways, assessing the competition.

Aunt Ada was unfailingly supportive and kind, but no pushover. I learnt this the hard way when she calmly busted me for sneaking my future ex-husband into my room.

As depicted in my semi-autobiographical novel, she made me feel like a daughter. I should note that, unlike Aunt May, the parallel character in my book, she gave birth to a son (Amoti), whom she raised from infancy as a de facto single mother.

For the record, there are many differences between Aunt Ada and my character, including that Aunt Ada could cook — I owe my signature broccoli casserole to her.

That she shared a favourite recipe is a very small testament to her generosity. Aunt Ada organised a birthday party every year, soliciting monetary gifts which she donated to the Matilda Williams Smith Home. She was also a docent at the Brooklyn Museum.

Aunt Ada cared about people, from her family to her classroom pupils to the wide array of piano students she continued to teach until a few years before she died.

She was also legendary for her unabashed frugality — together with her dear friend and sister-in-law, Aunt Shirley (née Paynter), she clipped coupons when extreme couponing wasn’t a thing, hitting multiple stores in search of the biggest bargains. That said, I never knew her to be stingy. Just disciplined.

In the years since I graduated, I saw Aunt Ada infrequently and spoke to her far less than I should have. The last time I saw her in person was for my sister’s wedding, about eight years ago. She wasn’t as spry as she had been before, but her mind was as sharp as ever, and she still had her distinctive sense of humour and her distinctive speaking voice.

She was thrilled to be a grandmother to Akiiki, happy to have journeyed to Atlanta — a small voyage compared with her trips to Africa, which weren’t yet in the rear-view mirror — happy to see me as I was to see her. And now she’s gone.

Rest in peace, dear Aunt Ada, wrapped in the loving arms of your Saviour, Jesus, and those who went before. I won’t forget you.

MARIA THOMPSON CORLEY, PhD

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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Published Apr 8, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 8, 2020 at 7:51 am)

Tribute to ‘unfailingly supportive’ Aunt Ada

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