Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, Suzana Michel’s Portuguese nickname translated to “Little No." It could also have translated to “Little Rebellion.”
In her Catholic school, she used to confess to elaborate sins, but the confessions were strictly for her own amusement. The sins were non-existent. Also, Suzana was Jewish.
When her beloved older sister moved to Israel for college, Suzana decided she needed to move there, too. She maneuvered an expulsion from not one, but two schools in São Paolo, and her exasperated parents finally sent her to a kibbutz for troubled youth. The vitality and rawness of that emerging country — Israel's own rebelliousness — spoke to her. Suzana thrived on joyful camaraderie.
It was asking for trouble, of course, when she joined the Army. Spirited backtalk led to many marches through deserts under extra-weighted packs. But she made it clear to her daughter, Natalie Kingsbury, that this was a price, like others in her life, she willingly paid.
“She used to say, she goes, ‘It’s so much better, you really should be like this: You’re like a volcano, you explode and then it’s done,' " laughed Natalie. “She literally advised me to be like a volcano, because it was better, it was healthier.”
The non-traditionalist Suzana entered a more traditional chapter when she married an American military man. They moved around the country — Maryland, the Pacific Northwest — and she tried selling Avon cosmetics to other Army wives, but her accent was too thick for commerce. When Natalie was in sixth grade, her mother followed another dream: She went to college, eventually left the marriage, and completed a Ph.D. in French literature.
Suzana was fluent in seven languages (she taught her daughter to swear in all of them). When Natalie was in college herself, Suzana moved to Boston to be with her, and, in a last professional incarnation, opened a foreign-language bookstore called Mundi International in Coolidge Corner. The vision of a gathering place for multilingual community compelled her, though her own independence sometimes interfered.
“I don’t always think she was great at customer service,” Natalie remembered. “My mom was one of those people that you either loved or you didn’t love. If she wanted to close for the day she would just flip the sign and say, 'I’m going home.' I’d say ‘Mom, it’s a business,' and she’s like, 'Well, I’m the owner, and I’m done for the day, y'know.' "
In the nursing home where Suzana lived after being diagnosed with early dementia, she spoke French to the Haitian nurses, and Spanish to the Hispanic nurses. If there had been Portugese, Italian, German or Israel nurses, they would have understood her, too. A lifetime of fearlessness and willfulness served her to the end.
“The last time I saw her, she said, 'Natalie, go!' and then she went and laid in bed and turned around, and said, 'I’m done talking to people now.' "
She died several days later.
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This segment aired on May 17, 2017.