Chang­ing views of our past

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Opinion - JUAN NE­GRONI Juan Ne­groni, a We­ston res­i­dent, is a con­sul­tant, bilin­gual speaker and writer. Email him at juan­[email protected] gmail. com. His col­umn ap­pears monthly in Hearst Con­necti­cut News­pa­pers.

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, co­work­ers 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

I loved her ob­ser­va­tion that “Life is too short for even one bad meal.”

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.

File photo

Louise DeSalvo

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