My Godfather, The Don
When I was growing up, I would refer to my godfather Don as ‘my dad’s partner.’ I’m from a small manufacturing town in northern Michigan, and everyone knew my dad, so there was little confusion. Times have changed, and now I stress ‘law partner.’ But really, they were more like life partners.
Don Samardich hired my dad straight out of law school in the 70s, convinced him to move to Cadillac, MI, and told him ‘we work hard and play hard.’ I like to think it was before that phrase was so overused.
When my parents moved to Cadillac it was a true outpost, with little culture, few forms of entertainment and apparently no restaurants of quality — my parents like to emphasize that they had to drive an hour to get to the nearest Chinese food place. They were isolated in the northern woods of Michigan, hours from the nearest city, in those analog years filled with books and magazines, records and tapes, and miles of orange and yellow shag carpet.
In this rural setting, my mom and dad, Don and his wife Anita, and a bunch of other local 20- and 30-somethings formed a little gang and made their own fun. They had costume parties, started a ‘gourmet food club’ where one couple would cook ‘ethnic’ food for the others, helped start a live music series, and went cross-country and downhill skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer. There were many racquet sports. I feel nostalgic for this era because I was born right in the middle of it. I have early memories of sweatbands on foreheads, words like ‘racquetball’ and ‘lamaze’ being tossed around, and of staying home with a babysitter while my parents went to a party dressed up as a nun and monk.
Don was at the center of organizing many of these activities. He was a puppet master, but the good kind. At Don’s funeral in May, my dad described him as their patriarch; he organized events and trips, supported and cheered them on, and dispensed advice. He was sort of like a Don in the mafia sense, but without the senseless killing. As my siblings and I got older, we called him “The Don” (not to his face, but I think he would have liked the moniker.) He was larger than life, hilarious and sharp, with a lack of inhibition that was only occasionally problematic.
Don and Anita officially became our godfather and godmother in a baptismal ceremony circa 1984 held at the Catholic church. I always thought Don took the responsibility extra seriously, from the way he checked in with us, emailed and called, and treated us like his own family. I learned at his funeral that he played this role with many others, and people of all ages.
My husband and I always made a point to see Don and Anita whenever we were home. He would often come over with two bottles of wine, one for us to drink and one for me to take away. He loved french red wine and would scrawl the year he bought the wine on the neck of the bottle with a sharpie; I am still not sure what purpose this really served, and I haven’t yet brought myself to drink the last bottle he gave me last Christmas (marked with a shaky “2014”).
Don and Anita had a grueling decade leading up to his death. He’d had triple knee surgery, and after all three surgeries, his knees filled with an abnormal amount of scar tissue. He never really recovered, and his knees were perpetually swollen and incredibly painful. He insisted on continuing to walk, and in the last few years it could take him 20 minutes to walk across a room, one centimeter at a time. He started falling, and Anita couldn’t pick him up off the floor. It was hard for friends and family to square this new Don with the tough, adventurous guy they’d always known.
Last winter, Don died of a complications related to a subdural hematoma (‘brain bleed’) that may have happened as a result of one of his falls. He was ready to go. He told my dad, the last time they had dinner together, that there were things worse than death. Between the pain and inability to do the activities he loved, I think he often found himself in a dark place. It was crushing to lose him, but also a relief — that he wouldn’t have to go to a nursing home, that he wouldn’t fall again, that someone wouldn’t have to finally take away his driver’s license, and of course that he was no longer in pain.
Don was always important to our family, but growing up I only knew him as an older person — always almost 40 years older than me. He was Don, my dad’s law partner, bathed (at least in my early years) in a haze of cigar smoke.
I discovered a different side of him by poring over hundreds of old photographs that his nephew shared with us. I saw Don as a sporty child, a Naval cadet, a newlywed, a ham and entertainer, an outdoorsman; at the beach, on the ski hill, at the lake. I also learned a lot from the talks given at his funeral; how much Don meant to so many people, and indeed how many best friends he seemed to have.
I’m inspired by the way my godfather, The Don, lived his life and how he positively impacted the people around him. Let us discuss.
Don was a voracious reader, which served him well in his law career. Every room in his house was filled with books — thousands in all. As he read, he would write notes all through the margins and on sticky notes. Anita told me that in these last few years, Don would read for hours every night until 2 or 3 in the morning.
He loved the writing of Michigan author Jim Harrison; he had multiple signed first editions. He appreciated author Louise Penny’s mysteries and spent one evening trying to sell me on her book The Beautiful Mystery, set in a monastery in Quebec. I think he loved the French phrases in the book; Don had Serbian and French roots, and as a child he’d spoken French in the home with his mother and grandparents (who lived with them and did not speak English.) Anita tells me his father and relatives also spoke Serbian. He preferred French red wine, and he would often make a French pronouncement or break into part of a lullaby francaise he remembered from his childhood.
But we were talking about Don’s reading habit. It was one of the activities he could do when his body eventually failed him. He refused to get a smart phone, so instead of scrolling through endless photo feeds, he put his attention toward active consumption of the written word. I respect that.
One of Don’s core values was to stay active and be physically strong and agile. He’d been a star football player in his youth, growing up in Detroit, and sports were a big part of his identity. Later he took up tennis; his kids were expert tennis players, and he helped coach the high school tennis team until just a few years before his death.
Don also loved mountains and hiking, and as I looked through photos of his life, I found many of him and Anita posing in front of a high peaks backdrop. This appears to be Zion:
Three of their four kids live in Big Sky, MT, so they visited often. After college I moved to Big Sky too, and I spent a couple winters working for his daughter Suzy at the Sundog, her mountainside cafe. Suzy helped orient me to big mountain skiing, and Don bought me a set of knee pads in 2001. (Why knee pads? So you won’t bash your knees on exposed rocks when telemark skiing. I just wore them for warmth.) Our dads loved seeing the next generation of Samardich-McCurdy employment.
In Don’s outdoor pursuits, he often wore a bandana tied around his head in a jaunty manner, sort of Axl Rose style. I didn’t think too much about it; I figured it was just part of his outdoor uniform. My dad later told me it was because he sweat so much from his forehead. It’s kind of like Michael Jackson’s glove covering his skin condition, or how I wear black shirts to hide my profusely sweaty armpits: functional fashion. Anyway, we love Don’s outdoor bandana style, and now my husband and I will sport a forehead bandana from time to time while hiking, as a tribute.
Don was a ham. Apparently he had a pair of navy blue sweatpants that he would wear to parties (or perhaps have a costume change and ‘slip into something a little more comfortable’) and then do a comedy routine during which he would pull the sweatpants up high, hunch over, and play some sort of nerdy character. I never actually witnessed this and could really use some video here to give me the full experience, but the photos are fairly descriptive.
Don’s no-inhibition antics always delighted me. When I was growing up, one of my favorite stories was from a dinner party that my parents had while we were in the midst of renovating our house. We still had plywood floors and were waiting for the carpet to be put in. Don said to my dad, “you know what I like best about your house David?” and then poured his big glass of red wine out on the floor and said “I don’t have to worry about staining anything if I spill my wine.” It left a big stain on the plywood that we kids would play around, until it was eventually covered up (like most other floors in our house) by 80’s style berber carpet.
One time, Don put a firecracker in a huge bowl of guacamole at a party and blew guac all over the room and ceiling, famously ruining attorney Jim Carr’s new, expensive wool suit from England. Don grabbed a chip, scooped some guacamole off Jim’s shoulder, and ate it. Anita was furious and walked all the way home. She would say, “it’s funny when it’s someone else’s husband.”
(The next day, Don sent flowers to the Blackmans, the party hosts (who are Jewish), with a note reading “Serbian terrorist bombs Israeli compound.”)
A couple of years ago, as my family pulled out of Don’s driveway and he and Anita stood waving goodbye, he quickly pulled up his shirt and flashed us his chest and then stood there with a mischievous look. My sister and I laughed the whole way home, and we still talk about the time Don flashed us.
There was something childlike and joyful about Don that made him fun to be around. Yes, his lack of inhibition caused some marital strife, but it made for great stories.
Don planned legendary camping and backpacking trips for his friends, many of them up in the Lake Superior area. My dad has a lot of stories from these adventures: the time they got lost in the snow; the time they faced down a moose; how they would pack in steaks for their first night’s meal; how Don insisted on bathing twice a day in the freezing lake.
The night of Don’s funeral we sat on our porch drinking wine and telling stories. My dad and his friend Bob started talking about these trips — how Don would plan them for weeks and months, but once they arrived at their destination he’d always end up leaving a day early. My dad says it’s probably because he spent so long planning and idealizing the trips, they never quite met his expectations. Don’s daughter says: “my Dad told me a few different times that the reason why he came home early from the trips is because he missed my Mom.” Regardless of the reason, I can see a shadow of “screw you guys, I’m going home” on his face in the below photo.
Or maybe it’s just the blue blockers. Regardless, I salute him for planning the trips and getting all his friends to show up.
Don never hesitated to show affection. When saying goodbye, he consistently kissed people on the top of their head and said “I love you.” He always did this when we parted, and I didn’t think too much about it, but I had a sense this gesture was reserved for family and close friends. Which was true; it’s just that Don had at least 100 people who fit into this category. This was another fact I discovered at his funeral, as many people described his signature parting ritual. He kissed all kinds of diverse craniums such as my mom’s fluffy head, older mens’ bald domes, children’s scruffy and tangled heads and babies’ sweet-smelling heads. He told them all he loved them. It’s a good reminder to show the people around us our appreciation and affection.
A couple of summers ago, Don was at our house hanging out in the front yard, and he told me about the time he witnessed a murder when he was 5 years old. This would have been the mid-1940s, in Detroit. I wish I could remember the details, but I believe it was a stabbing.
Don didn’t have the easiest childhood, and he had a few important coaches and mentors who encouraged him as he was growing up. I think they made a big impact on him, and he turned around and coached many different teams and individuals over his lifetime. After college, Don taught at his alma mater high school, coached football & went to law school at night. Later, in Cadillac, he was a tennis coach, and his own kids were excellent tennis players and all-around athletes. Here he is with some high school women’s tennis players:
Don connected easily with kids of all ages, and he spent time mentoring and forming them into responsible, capable adults. I appreciate and admire how much time he dedicated to helping young people, “on and off the court” as they say.
My dad was one of those young people Don mentored — with 10 years between them, when Don hired my dad, [I wasn’t there, but I could imagine] he was dealing with a not-yet-fully-formed man-child.
My dad wrote in a letter to Anita: “Don patiently guided and mentored me through my formative years in practicing law and how to be a good husband and person. Kathy and I always looked to you and Don as a window into our future. You were ten years older, your children were grown, and everything that happened to you came to us eventually.” He also said: “Don was instrumental in developing my interest in tennis, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, canoeing, camping, backpacking, and so on. Don’s enthusiasm for the outdoors was infectious and I believe that he and I have both passed that down to our children.”
It’s been interesting reflecting on just how much my dad’s interests and hobbies (and by extension, my own) were influenced by Don. When I was young, my dad was always playing tennis; he took us skiing and canoeing, and excitedly planned camping trips; to me, he was always a sporty outdoorsman. But it was all basically due to Don.
Don and Anita had a true love and partnership. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy — they had 4 children in quick succession, at one point having a 4-year old, 3-year old, 2-year old, and baby. Is this even possible? Anita says: “Dumb Catholics. People called Don ‘Potent Pete’ & I was ‘Fertile Myrtle.’”
Don called Anita his ‘rock.’ She’s funny, beautiful, smart, she kept their life in order, and she played tennis as well as the men — a great role model for her strong, athletic daughters.
My dad said that Don and Anita would leave little notes for each other — when one of them was traveling, the other would hide notes in their suitcase so they would find them later. Little gestures of everyday affection.
Don’s daughter Chris sent me a bunch of Don’s little catchphrases that she read at his funeral — one being “isn’t your mama pretty?” and another: “don’t tell mama I bought another Patagonia jacket.”
Below is Don in my parents’ old backyard ‘picking nits’ out of Anita’s hair. A young Suzy looks on, sporting a matching shirt that coordinates with both Don and the lawn chair.
Anita has great comedic timing and could keep up with Don’s banter; no small feat. We had some memorable meals in Don’s last few years, sitting around my parents’ dining room table with Don telling stories, Anita throwing out wisecracks, and all of us laughing until our faces hurt.
In the last year of his life, Don spoke more often about his time in the Navy, when he was stationed in Japan. He seemed to have a photographic memory and could recount what happened 60 years ago in intricate detail. I remember watching him lean close to Nick, sitting around a campfire in the summer of 2018, as he described that time in his life — traveling around Japan and the region with his ship. As I watched them across the fire Anita sat next to me whispering about how difficult Don’s life had become. Then they got up to leave and at least two or three of us had to hold Don up by the elbows as he shuffled across our dark yard to his car, stopping often along the way to pontificate on some subject or another.
My husband Nick and I were in Japan last fall, and I got this email from him while we were there, about 3 months before he died:
“I love Japan. My ship was stationed in Yokosuka. Sometimes spelled with an “o” at the end. We sailed in and out of Tokyo, Kobe, And most ports in the south of JAPAN. I and a shipmate made it a practice to venture into the countryside to see the interior. We walked the Kiso road made famous by Basho. We walked from inn to inn. Small towns linked to provide a place to rest for weary travelers. It was great and opened up new horizons for an 18 year old kid from Detroit.”
Nick and I had a chance to walk along the same beautiful Kiso road a bit — a valley filled with the smoky fragrance of Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) trees and occasional views of high, jagged peaks. I thought of Don, walking through that misty valley in the 60s as a young man, smelling the same trees. It must have been such a mysterious place and an exciting adventure, in a time before Google Maps, Google Translate, and Airbnb.
Don introduced his daughter Suzy to the Japanese poet Basho, and she wrote me about rediscovering Don’s notes and annotations in a book he gave her:
Here’s a Basho haiku that my Dad underlined in one of his books.
in the fine company of
On that same page is (what a surprise) a sticky note my Dad wrote:
“My image is Suzy’s garden, in the shade, rocking slowly back and forth with a cup of tea and a bee or two emerging from a flower. Suzy, the bees, the flowers all awakening for a new day.”
Then he drew a smiley face.
Another haiku we both loved:
the bee emerges from deep
within the peony
Don was a treasure to our family and everyone who knew him. My dad describes him as his ‘best friend for his lifetime’ and his ‘guiding light.’ My mom said it’s been hard for their friends to get together without Don there — it feels incomplete. I haven’t talked much about some important parts of Don’s life — notably his family and career, which were very important to him — but I know that he had an outsized impact on everyone in his vicinity.
He was certainly one of the most important people in my life, consistently, through 41 years. Not only ceremonially — he was the officiant at my sister’s wedding and co-MC at my wedding reception — but in everyday life. I’m sad that we don’t get to have him around anymore to flash us (chest only), spill our piece of pie on my mom’s white tablecloth and blame it on us (true story, my sister can tell you about it), tell us about that time he tipped the canoe over and left a ring of filth around Lake Superior, send us emails of encouragement, call us on our birthdays, and show us in many different ways how important we were to him and Anita.
How can I possibly pay enough tribute to this wild and unique person? I’m still formulating my personal approach to the death of a loved one, but I’m drawn toward rituals and objects that help me reflect on Don and what he meant to me. At his funeral, I passed out speckled sandstones from Lake Superior, a place Don loved to spend time. I also bought a few packs of red bandanas, like the ones he used to wear on his forehead, and passed them around.
I made some baskets with little lights in them, which I called spirit baskets, and gave them to my dad and Anita and Don’s girls. It felt right to create something utilitarian yet decorative in his honor.
This summer, I decided that I needed to go up to Lake Superior and visit Don’s old outdoors stomping grounds, the place where he and my dad and their friends had many adventures. I booked a ticket to Sault Ste. Marie, the place where the Upper Peninsula of Michigan meets Canada, and started consulting maps. I saw the Batchewana River — where my dad used to go on dangerous and legendary whitewater canoeing trips, battling aggressive black flies and, in my 7-year old’s mind, certain death. Looking at the map I saw a large park straight north of ‘the Soo’ called Lake Superior Provincial Park, and I found the highest-rated hike to be a place called Orphan Lake. I decided to hit it up.
During this time an idea started percolating; I could ask my dad to come with me on this little tribute journey. I sat on it for a few days, then called him up. I told him I was going to go up to Lake Superior, and asked him if he’d heard of a place called Orphan Lake. “Orphan Lake! Orphan Lake!” he said — “that was Don’s place!” Of all the camping stories (and mishaps) I’d heard about Don, many of them took place at Orphan Lake. My dad couldn’t believe it, and he did not hesitate to accept the invitation to revisit this place with me. (“This is so exciting!” he kept repeating.)
So, after a flurry of emails and phone calls, my dad booked places to stay and eat. It’s coming up fast —I fly out tomorrow, and we’ll spend a couple of days driving and hiking around the U.P and Canada. My dad is a talker, and I’m planning for how to capture the verbal history that is bound to come out of this trip; I’m sure there will be stories to fill a small book. But by this point, you know Don’s spirit.
I leave you with a joyful, silly song that Don led during my sister’s wedding ceremony, situated in a pastoral field at Caberfae, our local family-owned ski hill. I think this encapsulates him perfectly. Watch the whole thing — “don’t stand there like a dud!”