Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Claudia Fagioli, 80, sports a jean jacket and purple manicure. Her hair is gelled and spiky. She pulls my hand across the table to get a better look at my chipping black nail polish. She approves.
It is here in the upper level of Sharples Dining Hall where she meets with Karen Guan,’10 and Elizabeth Dickey, ’10, every Monday at lunch, to compile her memoir.
Guan reads Fagioli’s spindly handwriting from a legal pad as she sips her milk and fiddles with her fork.
Dickey sits at the computer, taking dictation.
Fagioli oversees, stopping the girls every couple of minutes to correct a phrase, or ask if either of the girls knows a better word for what she is trying to say (“They’ll know that one’s not mine!” she joked).
“It’s not really work because we get to hear about her life,” Guan said. Fagioli’s memoir spans most of the twentieth century, from her girlhood during the Great Depression, to McCarthyism, when her father was labeled a communist union organizer, to her 60-year marriage to Paul Fagioli and after his death, a companionship with a Mr. Mike Cameron.
Guan and Dickey used to work with Fagioli through Learning for Life, but Fagioli, who lives in Clifton Heights, retired from the Sharples staff in Spring of 2009 after 28 years of work. She never expected to keep working until age 80. “I was like that energotic bunny. I just kept coming back,” Fagioli said. She started working at Swarthmore College to cover the health insurance once her husband retired. She kept working because the benefits helped pay for care once he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He later passed away because of it.
“What do ya do?” Fagioli asked, “Go to the refrigerator and keep eating?” No, you keep living, she asserted. She writes in the preface to the book, “True stories show that growing old doesn’t mean the end of life. Rather it should be the start of a new age with experience, memories, and looking toward the future.”
Fagioli, who herself has 3 children, 8 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren, was a “surrogate mother” when working at Sharples. She often took students home with her for the holidays if they couldn’t return to their families, according to her niece, Adel Tracy. Fagioli said, “I never met a Swarthmore student I didn’t like.”
Dickey and Guan think of Fagioli as a grandmother. Guan has been at the family beach house at the New Jersey shore, and both are often over for dinner. “She almost didn’t want to retire because she was scared she’d lose that connection,” Lynn Grady, manager of Sharples, said.
Dickey started working with Fagioli on the book during her first semester at Swarthmore College, in the fall of 2006. Guan joined them in the spring. Both girls were matched with Fagioli because they listed writing as an interest in their Learning for Life application.
Dickey sees the book as, “a series of vignettes” and says that even though the two help Fagioli edit, “it’s important that she write what she wants.”
Guan said from the start the three had a common goal of seeing the book completed, but as of now, “it’s not cohesive.” All three hope the book will be finished by the end of this year, and hopefully published through a friend of Fagioli’s. They are currently working on a section both girls call their favorite, Fagioli’s relationship with Mr. Cameron.
“I’m not embarrassed to say exactly how I feel,” Fagioli said. During the Monday morning meeting, the three went through a scene in which Fagioli and her friend Mr. Mike Cameron, who had both suffered the loss of long term spouses, are traveling together in Hawaii. At the resort, Fagioli goes to take a shower and Cameron asks her, is she going to come out alluring? No. Charming? No. Sexy? No. Fagioli retorts she’s going to come out clean.
Both Guan and Dickey smile at this. Fagioli and Cameron could easily be teenagers in this flirty part of the book that describes the beginning of their companionship. “He was like a magnet,” Fagioli confided, “both of the men in my life were, and I was happy to be with them.”
Marm, as the girls call her, is “really into total disclosure,” said Guan, “I’d assume that someone in their eighties would be wrapped up in the past,” she added.
But not Fagioli, who keeps busy buy running the Golden Hearts Social Club (she replaced Senior with Social when she took over) and serving as the Clifton Heights tax collector for the last 14 years. She’s running again, unopposed. She tells me she has 3 personalities. There is A, the planner, the Claudia who has always been there, then C, the fun, frivolous one who skirts responsibility, and B. B is the neutralizer (“You have to settle down, C!”), the one who gets things done.
When asked to sum up her goal in writing the book, she speaks to her generation, gesturing with age-spotted hands tipped with magenta nails, “All these things happened to me and you too and when you feel alone it’s okay to find someone else.”
Fagioli is indignant about this, “I can’t depend on my family to make me happy and content and make my life feel full. At night I go home and I’m by myself. I’d die for them, but I would not say I live for my children. But it’s a secret, I don’t want them to find out they can get along without me.”
“Come here!” Fagioli says to me and reaches across the dining hall table to pluck off a chip of black polish that has wandered onto my cheek. She does this as if it’s her duty.
I realize I have wandered into her radar.
She hugs me goodbye. She calls me to see how it’s going. She’s asked if I’ll help with the book. She’s picked up the signal, another freshman in need of a little motherly love. Who can get along without that?