It was a hectic morning. The three siblings had been calling each other non-stop since 8:00am. Everyone had to carry out their individually assigned tasks scrupulously for “Operation Babu” to go off without a hitch. My mom and I had to buy soft drinks and pick up my aunt and cousin. Then we were to drive to my aunt’s favorite bakery for the éclairs and choux. [In case you are wondering, yes, these French sweets are the staple pastry for celebratory occasions in Georgia. Likely a scrumptious residue of the Francophilia rampant in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire.] Next, we’d procure the pre-ordered khachapuri and lobiani, the unanimously prized cheese- and bean-breads from a second bakery equally beloved by my aunt [but only for their savory goods!]. Ultimately, we were to be at the cemetery at 11:00am sharp.
Meanwhile, my uncle was being mobilized on the other end of the city with a no less important mission. Niko, my mother’s cousin, would collect him from the apartment. Armed with crimson wine and beeswax candles, they’d round up my two cousins and arrive in a small chapel attached to the Mukhatgverdi Cemetery where both my grandparents are laid to rest. Here, they’d pick up the priest on duty [alerted in advance, of course] and meet us at the gravesite. The son of my grandma’s sister Gerta, along with his wife, would be concurrently driving down from Khashuri. Traveling 180 kilometers each way, to and back from Tbilisi.
We were convening to celebrate my grandpa’s ninety-second birthday in his company. Or one of his two birthdays. I should clarify. If you were born in a small village, delivered by a midwife, away from the prying eyes of the hospital staff and Party officials, it’s likely that your birth date was not immediately registered. And so it happened that one birth was entered in two different registries, months apart, with two different dates. As a child, I had a hard time fathoming the disorientation that must accompany the loss of a birthdate. Eager for a bonus birthday, I marveled at my grandpa’s ingenuity and itched to spin a tale that would help me score two celebrations of my own.
“We need to set out no later than 10:00am!” my aunt’s assertive voice echoed over the speakerphone as I watched my mom struggle to take down the laundry from the balcony clothesline while putting on her pants.
The eldest of her siblings and cousins, my aunt is, hands down, commander in all matters family, a role bolstered by her unwavering faith and dedication to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Diligent and responsible, she knows the ritual nuts and bolts of every Christian life-cycle ceremony and holiday, be that child baptism, Christmas, funeral service, or even the more obscure ones, like the Repose of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. This expertise came in handy when my grandparents, unconcerned with matters of the church for much of their life, turned to god after the Soviet Union came crumbling down. Their new found religiosity synchronized with the nation-wide upswing in church-attendance, and the irrefutable consolidation of the Georgian Church in public and private affairs in my teenage years.
This is all to say that my grandpa would have appreciated the fact that there was an Orthodox priest standing over him on his ninety-second birthday, gently murmuring words of prayer and freshening him up with a splash of holy water while we stood around the grave, poker faced, trying to silently coordinate the simultaneous lighting of our prayer candles. The wind was clearly not on our side. When it seemed like everything was coming together, my uncle’s cell phone started ringing at full volume. A cheerful jingle cut through the solemn air. My aunt rolled her eyes. My mom and I exchanged glances, struggling to keep a straight face.
At the cemetery, my grandparents keep company with my great-grandparents. As is the practice in Georgia, they are buried in a family plot at a public cemetery, cheek by jowl with Babu’s mother and his father’s phantom remains. My great-grandfather was shot by the Soviets for owning a mill. His body was never found, but his presence is marked by a faded photo plaque. And his share of the soil. Instead of his bones, it is filled with distant recollections of his life.
The Georgian afterlife “residence units” mirror the boundary-making practices of private homes. A barrier, a fence, or a railing needs to be built around every “respectable” grave-site. The preferred material for grave adornment is marble, but most go with the less costly stone slabs. The decor alternates between extravagant steps, white marble crosses, archways, and ledges, and more modest chain railings and simple headstones. High on the list of tomb essentials is a proper place to sit down, stretch your legs, and say a prayer. These material landmarks of inter-world communion capture the agentive nature of Georgian gravesites. A single stone bench or the more common outdoor dining set are a testament to the perennial blending of this and other lives that transpires in these spaces.
Visitations are frequent. Besides celebrating birthdays and memorializing deathdays, the majority of Georgian Christians flock to cemeteries on Easter Monday. The tradition was born during the Soviet administration when believers, determined to avoid the dire repercussions of religious activity on the Resurrection Day, snuck off to the cemetery the following day. Scripturally speaking, visiting the dead during the Easter Week is ill-advised. Grief should have no place in your heart when you joyfully enunciate that “Christ has risen!” But when have the Holy Scriptures served as the formula for popular practice? Like elsewhere, Christianity in Georgia swallowed up indigenous gravesite practices designed to keep the dead comfortable and entertained in the afterlife. The sixteen-century-long Christian presence has blurred the pathways of the amalgamation yet we can assume it happened organically since caring for the departed is also central to Christianity. The body awaits to be reunited with the soul after the Second Coming. It has to be attended to. So, families continued to march to the cemeteries in independent Georgia, loaded by victuals and unencumbered by ecclesiastic admonitions. Perhaps sensing that habits are hard to kick, the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, gave in and officially proclaimed Easter Monday as the day of blessing graves. Full-blown cemetery fiestas are still disparaged, but that hardly prevents folks from enjoying the festive pastry, paskha, with the deceased, or from rolling blood-red eggs on the graves.
Coming back to Babu’s birthday celebration. The priest prepared to leave. He thoroughly cleaned the censer, wrapped the tweezers for handling the incense in a paper towel, and securely closed the Coca-Cola bottle now holding the holy water. The paraphernalia was neatly arranged into a black zipper pouch and placed into an old, well-maintained, shoulder bag. The routine was polished to perfection. My uncles loaded the car with several bags of food and drinks for alms and drove the priest off to the chapel.
With the ceremonial obligations out of the way, it was time to loosen up. Wine was swiftly poured into plastic cups to help us ease into the day. “Now, let’s say a happy birthday to Babu and say a toast to his life!” my uncle was the first to raise the glass before he leaned over and poured a little bit of the ruby juice on the ground, “Here you go, Papik, enjoy.” Most of us followed the lead, but my aunt, never big on “the folk” practices, stood back aloof. I took the cup of wine and walked over to my grandparents. “Ahh… The craftsman really did a great job with these engravings. Look at those eyes smiling back from the marble!” I said out loud for the hundredth time, knowing everyone would be pleased, once again, that the headstone etchings were a success. We went about our business of sprucing up the graves. Munching on the cheese bread in synchrony. There was much banter. My uncles cleaned the shrubs and dead leaves from the ground, my mom dusted the headstones, cousins arranged fresh flowers in patterns around the graves, my aunt and I lit the candles and stuck them to the marble. Occasionally, the act of collective remembrance transported us in a time where, for a split second, we could feel their presence.
Babu had a sweet tooth. And he had diabetes. A match made in hell, one might say. When an overdue hip replacement chained him to a wheelchair, he would endlessly nag my grandma for candy. Grandma would fix him up with two hard candies daily, but if she felt especially generous she threw in a couple more. When candy diplomacy went awry, Babu would seek intervention from his kids, cajoling them into defending his case. The bargain for sweets is a running joke in the family. On that day, mom facetiously placed two candies by grandpa’s gravestone. “But grandma promised him four!” hollered her cousin, doubled over with laughter. Clearly prepared for the charge, my mom grabbed two more candies from her bag and set them beside the others. Happy for Babu, we chuckled in unison. We had already reached the cars when mom ran back, put something by grandma, and returned to the driver’s seat. “What was that?” I asked, smiling. “I left a chocolate bar for grandma too. I did not want her to feel neglected.”