Mother-in-Laws: The Threat Is Closer Than You Think – Tbilisi, Georgia

The Threat Is Closer Than You Think

Tbilisi, Georgia

Sad ahar chemo Suliko?
(“Where are you, my Suliko?)
 – Georgian folksong

Here, nestled in the cultural center of the Caucasus, the wonderful tradition of close family ties and respect for elders (not to mention multi-generational shared living quarters) have reeked havoc on my serenity and private sense of couplehood. At first, I was really pleased to be drawn into such a tightly knit circle. Anyone can sit at a supra and be toasted over a mountain of dishes, but only “nasha” (one of ours) is allowed into the kitchen to help grandma-sweet, tipsy, and nostalgic-wash up afterwards. I reveled in peeling back the layers, moving from guest to friend, to family member – from gosti [guest] to pryatl [buddy] to akhlobeli [acquaintance] to padruga [female friend] to megobari [good friend].

But, in the end, as with onions, the fumes finally got to me. After the initial courtship dance, where we pretended not to notice each other except among close friends, and then for the next three months, pretending that I was really visiting his sister, his mom found out that we had more than a passing acquaintance. I foolishly, naively, let slip in casual conversation with his mother that my brother was a Taurus, just like her son. I should have been more vigilant. Obviously, knowledge of a man’s horoscope has deeper meaning than I’d realized. She began digging.

Undoubtedly driven by love, family members follow the private lives of their kin with the intensity usually reserved for football matches or poorly dubbed Latin American soap operas. Girlfriends are seen as in-laws in the making – and are scrutinized accordingly. You know how people often say, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” that really affects them? Well in a relationship here, it would seem that it’s not the intensity, but the paranoia you’ve got to be on the lookout for.

Suddenly, I found myself self-conscious about drinking coffee (“Dangerous to the organism,” I was admonished), and dressed with a bit more thought so as to be in good form in case I ran into a relative. And, they are legion! I began to feel like I was somehow being held up to a standard that I had no desire to actually reach, i.e. mother to future generations. What exactly are these people looking for? Where’s the measuring stick? Could this possibly get more uncomfortable?

Prior to his mother’s intervention, my friend and I had frequent, if covert, visits. We’d met the proper way and properly hid this from almost everyone we knew. In the name of hospitality, he navigated my brother safely through Tbilisi’s ancient baths – gorgeous, historical dens of sordid adventure, visited in turn by both Dumas and Pushkin. He provided me with a makeshift uncle – out of work, opinionated, and alcoholic – with whom I could discuss the finer points of Georgian winemaking all summer in the family garden.

His family arranged for my brother to see Mtskheta, the town/UNESCO World
Heritage Site, 12 miles outside of the capital city. We took photos from a monestary that sits above the meeting point of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. Although he lacked my enthusiasm (curiosity?) for native son Iosif Dzhugashvili (aka Joseph Stalin), I found my way to his hometown of Gori without him. He waved me off for conferences in Bakuriani and Gudauri (better known as ski resorts and great vacation spots than for the
conferences held there, I assure you). I smiled with clenched teeth each
time his friends secreted him away for a weekend trip to Zugdidi (a town
along the Abkhaz border) that turned into a two-week adventure.

Our arguments centered around khashi, (referred to as “man food,” used to treat hangovers when taken early in the morning with a few hundred grams of vodka) a stuffed-intestines-with-peppers-and-squished-meat dish I deemed inedible, and the relative merits of the various Soviet-made vehicles he had wrecked in his youth. Sometimes he would rant on about the country’s corruption, then cap the mini-tirade off with a shrug. We liked holding hands. He shared with me the history of his home; the time his grandfather spent in the gulag and the life he built afterwards; the suicide-in-protest of a famous relative. I visited the family museum on a visit to the countryside.

Mothers the world over have incredible powers of persuasion, intuition; the greatest capacity for unconditional love, inducing guilt, emotional button pushing, and have the stamina for truly relentless questioning. Add in a couple of uncles giving pats on the back for managing a good catch, and a grandmother who starts in with turn-of-the-century marriage advice, and you’ve got one doomed little romance.

A traditional “wish tree”.

His sister supplied me with a bit of information that came much too late to have been of help to me. “My family only met my husband five months before the wedding, after we’d already decided to get married.” To me, the idea that casual dating inevitably leads to marriage, makes about as much sense as supply-side economics, the last presidential election or “pre-emptive strikes” – which is to say it makes no sense at all.

So, as the net widened and friends were called in by family members to account for his whereabouts, I felt my ardor cool. With each gentle interrogation by a well-meaning aunt, each new recipe proffered by grandma, I felt a door slam.

Exactly how would you respond to relatives hoping to elicit responses that would give insight into your waning fertility at the over-ripe age of 30? You do realize that women in this part of the world, who have their first child after the age of 24, have “Old Uterus” marked on their hospital charts, don’t you? Well, I didn’t either… until his aunt told me as I was pouring tea. Never was there a shakier cup, I promise you that.

Finding solace as I sometimes do at the manicurist, in the company of posh Russian-speaking Vake divas, I came to understand that what I was experiencing was in fact the cultural norm. With each flamboyant defeatist gesture – shrugged shoulders, hand thrown in the air as if to say, “What can you do?” – it became clear to me that it was only going to get worse.

And so it was that we drifted apart. Home visits proved impossible, because quite frankly I couldn’t tolerate the grinning coming from everyone, including the cleaning lady, at his place; or the sing-song voice at the end of the line, asking “Is he with you?” when we were at mine. Visits to the office? Nix. Nights out? No. By the end, I had Marlon Brando keening in my head, “the pressure, the pressure.” A rather unpleasant mental image, yeah? Sad, really. Without the traditional Georgian upbringing afforded girls, I was caught completely unaware.

So, the boy who would relate stories about the hoodlum adventures of his youth while watching the Discovery Channel with me, who could make 25 smoke rings in a row to pass the time while the pelmeni boiled, and who knew of my particular habit of mixing apple juice with either cherry or raspberry, so he’d bring boxes of all three – well, he’s somewhere else now.

Just ask his mother. I bet she knows where.