Three Years For A Whole Life

in Zurich, Switzerland

Sarah Scarnato spent the last three years writing down her grandfather's eventful life, which he wasn't able to do by himself. Today, the book will finally be published.

Sarah’s hands are cold. Sweat gleams on her forehead. «Shit. I can’t do this.» It’s shortly before mid-day. Six hours to go. Six hours until she stands before the audience in a black evening dress and says «I still remember exactly how, on granddad’s dinner table, I found a piece of paper that made me curious.»

For now, the dress is still on its clothes hanger. She’s worried it will be too tight. If her grandfather had had his way, she would have been wearing the long brown dress. «Or my grandmother’s old Sennechutteli,» a traditional Swiss farming shirt. She sits, has another mouthful of coffee, milk and sugar and lights a cigarette. Her grandfather’s ideas: So often different to her own. Despite this, Sarah has spent the last three years visiting him at home every week, sitting and listening, and writing his life story for him.

November 2012. Sarah has recently turned thirty-three. Today, like every Tuesday, she is visiting her grandfather. He cooks lunch. Sarah sits at the dining table between heavy, old wood furniture. On the table are boxes, letters, writing paraphernalia, a leather suitcase full of old paper, collectors’ stamps, note pads, paper clips, a magnifying glass. In amongst it all, a sheet of paper, hand-written. She reads. The words seem randomly thrown together, the sentences without beginning or end. She asks what it is. «My life,» he answers. Sarah doesn’t understand. He opens a large box. Inside, a thousand A4 sheets, inscribed in thick black felt-tip pen. Fragments of almost a century. Her grandfather as a child in the Zurich of the 1920s, as a member of the national defence during the Second World War or as a hotel chef in the Metropole in Bern. Memories of childish pranks, of his beloved Bündnerland in eastern Switzerland and of his «Darling», Sarah’s grandmother. He says he’s writing a book, his biography. Sarah surveys the chaos, thinks of the confused sentences. It will never happen at this rate. A moment later she hears herself saying: «I don’t know anything about writing books, but you know what, I’ll write it for you.» Today she says: «If I’d only known then what I was getting into!»

She fishes the book from her messenger bag. Alex Werthmüller’s biography «Mein Lebensmosaik», My Life Mosaic, comprises almost 600 pages. Tonight it is being presented to the public. Five hours to go.

Sarah needs to get out, get down to the lake, to eat something at the Rote Fabrik, a cultural centre on the shore of Lake Zurich. She won’t feel like eating much later anyway. Later, at the reception, she wants to talk about how the book was written. About how much she learned about grandfather’s life and how she got to know him and herself in a new way. But she is still reluctant, unsure whether she will be able to find the right words. She wants to talk about the inner battle she fought in the last few years, because she wrote some things in a way that she would never say herself. About the chasm, that sometimes seemed unbridgeable, between her grandfather’s views and her own. «I can remember times when I wasn’t sure if I could really do it. If I’d manage to write the book according to his wishes.» For example, the «Great Unknown» that her grandfather dedicates his book too. He says later that he isn’t religious, but he has faith. For Sarah, it’s one and the same. She doesn’t believe in the Unknown or God. She also doesn’t think that anyone or anything is protecting her or guiding her through life. In fact, she often feels overwhelmed by life. There are times when she hardly has the strength to face the day. Four more hours.

Sarah doesn’t finish her vegetable curry. Her head aches and she feels nauseous. At school, she hated tests. Her entire school career, to her, was torture; she doesn’t like talking about it. She left the country at nineteen, went to Thailand, India, Nepal. She was happy there. Nobody expected anything of her. She sang in beach bars and juggled with fire, zipped around on her moped and learned Thai. Back in Switzerland, she completed an apprenticeship as pre-school teacher and now works at a day nursery. A tattoo of a climbing plant wraps itself around her body from the tip of her little finger to her little toe. She finds freedom in dance, preferably outside, far away from the city, and hopes to find time for it tomorrow night, when it’s all over.

«What should I write if someone asks for an inscription?» What if her grandfather loses his train of thought? What if he starts to stutter, like he used to? What if she loses her voice, her throat too dry to speak? Another coffee, another cigarette. Then she walks along the lake to a friend’s apartment. She stands in front of the mirror, pinning up her black hair. «I think I’d like to go blonde again.» Make up, sparkling eye shadow, big, green eyes. The dress and the high heels don’t go on just yet. She packs gifts for her nephew, whose birthday is tomorrow, into a paper bag. Sarah has three siblings, two sisters and a brother. Jessica, the second youngest, will be singing at the reception tonight, visiting from the distant Canton of Valais. «I hope she’ll be on time for a change.» Three more hours.

«What should I write if someone asks for an inscription?»

Sarah leaves the tram at Paradeplatz and walks towards Limmatquai. Some tourists ask her to take a picture of them. She tries to fit the Grossmünster, one of Zurich’s historical churches, in the picture. «This is one of the nicest spots in Zurich: the old town, the river, the view of the lake.» She sits at the waterfront, drapes her dress over the quay wall, and looks over to the guild hall where the reception will take place. Sarah would have liked to be a speaker, but she can’t find any jobs without training in journalism. Tonight, she is giving her voice to her grandfather. She will read a chapter from the book, his life: Her grandfather, in his mid-twenties, recently married. A small farm on Lake Brienz, Switzerland surrounded by war. Grubs eating the lettuce, an injured chicken. Conversations with God, the Great Unknown; an affair in Hotel Bristol; a drunkard with slit wrists. Urgent, restless stories from a man who seeks the unusual in everyday life. «Granddad, brevity is the soul of wit,» Sarah often says. Sometimes he hears her; usually he doesn’t.

Sarah crosses the bridge to the other side of the river. She pauses and looks at the river Limmat, its little waves, the swans. The sun shines on her face. Her headache has gotten worse. She goes up the stairs to the first floor of the guild hall and pauses on the threshold. Ten rows of tables, covered with white linen and flanked by massive wooden chairs, fill the room. Glasses and bottles of mineral water are at the ready. One hundred and twenty people are expected. A wooden lectern stands to one side of the hall. «This makes me feel like a priest in a church.» Sarah stands behind the lectern. The room, with its heavy ceiling beams, oil paintings and chandeliers, almost swallows her up. The lectern reaches her chin, the microphone covers her face. Behind her, a huge anatomical painting of a camel on a green-blue background: The emblem of the Zunft zum Kämbel, the guild of the camel. «I need a glass of white wine, or I won’t survive this.» She hangs the dress up backstage. Two more hours.

Her grandfather arrives on foot from the train station. Supported by a walking stick with a silver head, the tall, lean man puts one foot before the other. Sarah watches him. He recently turned ninety-three. He is wearing a bordeaux-red suit beneath his beige trench coat. His shoulder-length, light grey hair is parted in the middle; lively eyes glint behind thick orange glasses. He uses these to better differentiate light things from dark. He doesn’t see Sarah. «Granddad, I’m here!» He kisses his granddaughter on the cheek and gives her a hug. She leads him to a table, where he orders a cup of tea. He takes her hand. «How are you? Are you nervous?« he asks. Sarah laughs. «What do you think?« «Don’t worry, I’m here with you.«

Sarah’s sister and the publisher arrive. Crates of books are carried into the hall, a stall is set up to sell the book, a row of chairs arranged for the speakers. Sarah’s sister warms up her voice. For a short moment, everything stands still. Her grandfather retreats to the restaurant; the young people will do it all right. An old number 6 tram passes by. He remembers how, when he was a boy, they used to put 1 Rappen pieces on the tracks so the tram would drive over them. The flattened coins were then exactly the right size to pass as a 5 Rappen piece for the chewing gum vending machine. To this day, he still carries a 1 Rappen coin with him, even though they have long become obsolete. «That way my wallet is never empty.» One more hour.

The first guests begin to arrive. Sarah hugs her mother, her older sister, her younger brother and Vasco, her closest friend, who she will later thank: For his support, for listening, for getting through this together. «I didn’t even do anything,» he says. The square out the front of the guild hall is filling up. Her grandfather’s friends, the publisher’s friends, familiar faces from years ago and Sarah in the middle. «Are you Alex’s little granddaughter?» They are proud, moved by the story and by the gift she is giving her granddad. Sarah drops into a chair near the entrance. Just a bit more wine, a last cigarette. It’s time. She goes backstage to change. To the toilet quickly; she can’t open the dress.

Her grandfather is waiting at the entrance to the hall. He’s wearing his red Sennechutteli. It reminds him of his time with Sarah’s grandmother. Sarah helps him with the buttons. The hall is full to the last chair. Sarah’s sister starts singing. Her grandfather puts on his cap. «We’re ready now, aren’t we?» They go in.

The publisher gives a speech. Sarah’s grandfather sits next to him, sunk deep into the chair with his head resting in his left hand, as though he weren’t there. Sarah, elegant and calm in her black dress, looks at him. He looks up, squeezes her hand. She stands up.

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