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Who We Are Changing views of our past

November 25, 2018

Reading obituaries are often learning experiences. That was so true when I read in The New York Times about the passing of Dr. Louise DeSalvo.

She was renowned as an essayist, a memoirist and a scholar. She had also been a professor at Hunter College, teaching writing and literature. Her body of work ranged from essays on literature to Italian cuisine which she wrote about in her book, “Crazy in the Kitchen.” I loved her observation that “Life is too short for even one bad meal.”

Ms. DeSalvo’s obituary cited a quote from another one of her books, “Writing as a Way of Healing.” She wrote that writing helped change the way she looked at the past. That notion struck me as profound.

As I reviewed my list of possible future topics for this column, I kept thinking of what Louise DeSalvo had said about how writing had helped her rethink the past. It finally occurred to me that many of my columns had changed my perspective of long-ago experiences in my life.

For example, in the Mr. Wilson’s Demise column, I wrote of my putting down rodents throughout my youth. We tagged one with the Mr. Wilson name as he rattled his way inside the walls of our home. We came to accept the likes of a Mr. Wilson living in our midst as nothing out of the ordinary. Writing about that experience gave me a new perspective of how often we get used to circumstances few others would consider normal.

Moreover, The Frozen Chicken Caper column changed my thinking about judging others. When I worked as a clerk at a supermarket, our security guard suspected a mother and daughter of shoplifting. It ended with the guard banging his nightstick three times on the checkout counter. A frozen chicken fell out from under the mother’s coat.

Each time I told that chicken story I turned those two ladies into caricatures with a slight exaggeration of the facts to make it more comical than it already seemingly was. It wasn’t until I wrote that column that I thought of them as real people, with real problems.

Unquestionably, it was The Illiterate Teacher column the prompted me to think of my past very differently by writing about it. My youngest brother, unable to read or write, had masked this deficiency throughout his life.

In restaurants he would say, “I’ll order the same thing,” and then point to the person nearest him. Or ask a friend or a family member to read his mail. As a custodial employee, co-workers would cover for him.

Eventually he became more and more mentally depressed and deteriorated physically. He stopped eating and passed away last April. We were unaware of the trauma and pain his illiteracy had caused him. That article ended with, “Often we see without seeing.”

There is a side note to the Louise DeSalvo obituary. I subsequently learned that my sister-in- law, Maria Terrone, a published essayist and poet, and Ms. DeSalvo were once colleagues at Hunter College. Both have written about Italian cuisine.

More recently the two exchanged emails. Ms. DeSalvo wrote of her terminal illness and signed off with, “Knowing you, and knowing your poetry has been wonderful for me.” Maria said to me, “I will never delete her email.”

It indeed was my good fortune to have read the Louise DeSalvo obituary. For me it opened a new way of changing a view of one’s past. I have also read online that many accomplished writers have used their craft to get a deeper understanding of their experiences.

But what about those who aren’t professional writers? Can writing help them change the way they look at past personal events? Writers like Louise DeSalvo would answer that with a resounding yes. Some would add that writing is often therapeutic. Even writing a letter will provide a perspective a person may not have previously thought of.

Juan A. Negroni, a Weston resident, is a consultant, bilingual speaker and writer. Email him at juannegroni12@gmail.com. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.

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