GRAND HAVEN — For most of us, the most exciting parts of our lives come pretty early, and by the time we hit a certain age, we’ve probably had our last big adventure.
92-year-old Dona Zack of Rothbury isn’t most people, and if you need to be convinced, just know that on Saturday, Aug. 1, she wasn’t relaxing in an easy chair like most of us would be doing at that age; she was leaping out of a plane at 13,000 feet, at SkyDive Grand Haven.
Mrs. Zack lost her husband David, a World War II paratrooper and 40-plus year employee of Teledyne Continental Motors in Muskegon, in November 2010 after 63 years of marriage. The couple had six children and have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Without her husband to while away the hours with, Zack needed something to do, so she started a ‘bucket list’ of things she wanted to do before she too departed this life.
For Zack, though, it’s less a defined list than just an inclination to see people or things that look interesting and decide to get involved. One of those things was attending Electric Forest, where her daughter, Elizabeth Siegel, and Siegel’s husband Ric are annual vendors, in 2015. That would’ve been interesting enough for a woman Zack’s age, but when a limousine pulled up near the group, Zack walked right up to the driver and managed to talk her way onto the limo for a short ride, waving out the open window at everyone she saw.
Turning what could otherwise be mundane interactions with strangers into memorable stories is a running theme in stories about Dona. She once turned a routine trip to the Weesies garden store in Montague into a ride around the store in a golf cart with an employee. Another ‘bucket list’ item saw her hop on the back of Ric’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a ride through downtown Whitehall, waving and grinning at onlookers the whole way; Siegel said her husband reported that it felt like escorting the Queen through town.
Last year, Zack checked off another item on her list by, alongside granddaughter Danielle Siegel (Elizabeth’s daughter), getting a tattoo — a small red feather on her right wrist.
“I don’t call myself adventurous or anything like that,” Zack said. “It’s just something that strikes me.”
Zack’s skydiving excursion on Saturday started the same way. Danielle, who’s very close with her grandmother and even lived with her for a while after returning from her time in the Peace Corps, was showing Zack a video of her own first skydive — done about a year ago as part of a friend’s birthday celebration — when Zack said, with almost no hesitation, “Oh, I’m doing that”.
And that’s how Danielle came to be in a plane with her grandmother, who tandem-jumped with SkyDive employee Luis Hermosillo and soaked in every moment of the experience. (Hermosillo, incidentally, is no stranger to experiences like that; he said he once jumped with a 100-year-old, and even had plans to gun for a world record by jumping with a 103-year-old before they were rescheduled.)
“I wasn’t a bit afraid...I just loved every second of it,” Zack said. “I did lose a glove...I’m very satisfied. It was more than I could have imagined.”
Zack wryly noted that a good chunk of her family showed up for this particular ‘bucket list’ entry, more than have ever been on hand to witness one before.
“I’ve never had an audience before,” Zack said. “Maybe they thought it was the last time (they were) going to see (me), so let’s all show up.”
Whatever the reason, there was no need to worry. Not only was Zack not nervous, Danielle said she spent time in the plane ribbing anyone who was and making jokes about never having been surrounded by so many strapping handsome fellows before; the small plane was jammed full of a dozen or so other jumpers. She even shrugged off Danielle’s own small token of sentimentality before she made the leap.
“I was trying to tell her, ‘Grandma, I love you’, and hold her hand for a minute while we were up there, and she was like ‘see ya!’” Danielle said.
The jump was drama-free (Danielle joked that she felt like she was “pushing her luck” after her original jump also went well), and Danielle quickly found her grandmother after both had landed and delivered a big hug as the family applauded their vibrant matriarch.
In a way, Dona’s latest feat was a tribute to David’s military paratrooping service. Given that the consensus family opinion is that David’s reaction to most of Dona’s adventures would be a bemused smirk and a shake of the head (“Yep, that’s my mom” is a common refrain, Elizabeth Siegel said), one supposes the tribute of sorts was the least she could do in return.
“Today, he’s just grinning down on her,” Danielle said. “He went paratrooping for the last time when he was 82 or something. He’d love to see her do this. He’s definitely very proud.”
In between wowing her much younger family members with her brazen deeds, Zack enjoys taking care of her garden and spending time with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her next adventure will be a little less exciting but no less memorable for her; she wants to go horseback riding again, having done so many times when she was a young girl growing up on a farm.
Beyond that, she says she has other plans but doesn’t yet want to divulge them. Knowing her, those plans very well may change on a dime if another side quest like Saturday’s skydive presents itself.
“They just crop up,” she said of her ‘bucket list’ items, and it’s easy to believe her.
However, no matter what remains on her list, it seems unlikely she’ll be able to top the skydive, a memory that should live on in family lore for generations.
“Being in the plane together, sitting there with our feet hanging out the door, and getting ready to jump, looking down at open earth, was incredible,” Danielle said. “She just looked at me with the biggest smile on her face, and I’ll never forget it.”