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Memories and Love Across the Generations

By Monika Zaleska ’13
Daily Gazette, Oct. 20, 2009


Karen Guan (right) and Elizabeth Dickey (left) met Claudia Fagioli through the Learning for Life Program, which brings together students and staff members for mutual learning experiences.

Claudia Fagioli, 80, sports a jean jacket and purple manicure. Her hair is gelled and spiky. Seeing my black nail polish, she approves. Every Monday at lunchtime, Fagioli meets with seniors Karen Guan and Elizabeth Dickey, who are helping her write the story of her life.

Fagioli’s memories span much of the 20th 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, her companionship with Mike Cameron.

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 one of them knows a better word for what she is trying to say. “It’s not really work, because we get to hear about her life,” Guan said.

Guan and Dickey first met Fagioli through the College’s Learning for Life Program—which connects students with staff members for mutual learning experiences— before she retired from the Sharples staff in spring 2009 after 28 years at the College.

Fagioli never expected to work until age 80. “I was like that energetic bunny. I just kept coming back,” she said. She started working at Swarthmore to obtain the health insurance once her husband retired. She kept working because the benefits helped pay his treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which claimed his life in 2000. “Whaddaya do?” Fagioli asks, “You keep living.”

She writes in the preface to the memoir: “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 has three children, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren of her own—was a “surrogate mother” while working at Sharples, often taking students home with her for holidays if they couldn’t return to their families. Dickey and Guan think of Fagioli as a grandmother. Guan has been at the Fagioli family beach house at the New Jersey shore, and both students are often invited to dinner. “She almost didn’t want to retire because she was scared she’d lose those connections,” Lynn Grady, Sharples office manager, says.

Dickey first started working with Fagioli on the memoir during her first semester at Swarthmore, in fall 2006. Guan joined them in spring 2007. Dickey sees the emerging 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 says that from the start the three had a common goal of seeing the book completed, but as of now, “it’s not cohesive.” Last fall, they worked on a section both students say is their favorite—Fagioli’s relationship with Mr. Cameron.

“I’m not embarrassed to say exactly how I feel,” Fagioli says. During the Monday morning meeting, the three work through a scene in which Fagioli and her friend Cameron, both of whom have suffered the loss of longtime spouses, are vacationing in Hawaii. At the resort, Fagioli goes to take a shower and Cameron asks her if she’s going to come out alluring? No. Charming? No. Sexy? No. Fagioli retorts she’s going to come out clean.

“Well then don’t rush out,” Cameron says from behind his newspaper.

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 relationship. “He was like a magnet,” Fagioli confides. “Both of the men in my life were, and I was happy to be with them.”

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.”

“Come here!” Fagioli says to me, reaching across the dining hall table to pluck off a chip of black nail polish that has wandered onto my cheek. She does this as if it’s her maternal duty. I realize I have wandered into her radar.

She hugs me goodbye. Later, she calls me to see how it’s going. She asks if I’ll help with the book. She’s picked up the signal—another freshman in need of a little motherly love.

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