I must have heard the story a thousand times. One September day, my dad got on a plane from Tbilisi to Leningrad (née St. Petersburg) for a trip that was going to change his life. His guy friends pushed him to follow his heart and hop across the Caucasus mountains. "If you like her so much then just go there and talk to her, Leningrad is not America," they said.
So Guram Lomsadze arrived in the cultural capital of a stagnated empire. The Soviet Union was then drowning in corruption, red tape and food shortages – all under the bleary gaze of a fossilized leader with bushy eyebrows.
Although he was entitled to it, Dad failed to get a room at the Dormitory for the Young Scholars and Postgraduate Students. The superintendent said he could rustle up a room if Dad could rustle up a bottle of Georgian brandy. He then tried his luck at a hotel and managed to charm the administrator, one of those fierce Russian ladies whose role was both bouncer and snitch.
"You seem like a decent man, but, for future reference, this girl here could use a little souvenir [brandy] from Georgia," she deadpanned, handing him a room key.
Next day, he headed to the State Technological Institute, where Mom was honing her research credentials. He furtively studied her routine and prepared to make his move. But the first order of business was a wee bit of shopping.
Dad was not much of a dresser, but it was A) a big day and B) the 1970s. So he went to Gostiny Dvor and let the flirty attendants pick a paisley-print shirt, a snug black blazer with pointy collar, and a pair of bell-bottoms. "She'll be swept off her feet," the giggling girls reassured him. "If not, you know where to find us, handsome."
Then there he was, pacing in a corridor, checking his watch and mentally practicing his bump-into-her-by-chance act. He nearly chickened out when my mom appeared. Click-clacking on sandal heels, Medea Asatiani-Chagunava came down the stairs in a flowing, floral sundress, pulled chokingly tight at the waist, with waves of brown hair falling on her shoulders (I always pictured this part in slow-mo). Again, he felt that he was completely out of her league. "She had the figure of Brigitte Bardot and the brain of Marie Curie," he was wont to say.
She spotted him and there was no going back. All the carefully rehearsed lines came bursting out in a mumbled volley. "Is it not incredible that both of us ended up in Leningrad? I mean what are the odds? Since we are both here, could you do me a huge favor? I need to buy a coat for my friend's daughter, but I'm very bad at this. Could you possibly come to the shops with me and help me choose. I'd be eternally grateful…"
Mom waited for the rambling soliloquy to end with a polite smile. She then graciously declined. As he watched her walk off, he felt extremely stupid, standing there in the crowd, all spruced up and shaved to a gloss. The painfully planned trip was a total fiasco.
Medea went click-clacking down Gorky Street thinking, "not again and not here." Part of the reason she moved to Leningrad was to escape the suitors who chased her back in Tbilisi. Matchmaking was a popular pastime in the vapid, wood-paneled corridors of academia, where she was considered a rare catch: She had defended her chemistry dissertation at a young age, came from an old professorial family, and looked more like a fashion model than a scientist.
Every now and then, the head of a neighboring department would pop into the lab, push a confused son past test tubes and vials toward my mother, and suggest they experiment with ammonium chloride together.
Or she'd come home to a trap set by her relatives. "We were just in the neighborhood. Do you remember Sandro [or Misha or Giorgi or David]," Aunt Tina would say, pointing to another smiling face in the corner. "Come on, just close your eyes, hold your nose and marry one of them," Tina would hiss. "It will be too late when you turn 30."
My mother appreciated male attention, but, when push came to shove, the only chemistry that truly interested her was the organic kind. She was convinced that all men, except her dearly departed father, were difficult and moody, and she did not want one in her life.
Leningrad offered a respite from the pressure. It was a big move, going from sunny little Tbilisi, where everyone knew everyone, to a big cold city, where she could get lost in the crowd. She was content with her life and focused on her research. My grandmother would come visit and they strolled through the shopping galleries, went to theaters, popped into the Hermitage.
But as she walked home on that day, she did admit to herself that there was something extremely charming about that goofy, overdressed man's kindly smile. "He seemed like a very decent man," she would tell me.
Of course a girl would turn down the first pass – Dad's gang told him when he returned to Tbilisi – you must try at least three times. So he enrolled in a professional training course and returned to Leningrad.
On the second encounter, they spoke a bit longer; on the third, he walked her home and met the wrath of Mom's landlady, the neighborhood scold Natalya Sergeyevna.
Widowed and childless, Natalya Sergeyevna had grown maternally protective of her mannerly tenant and felt it was her job to put any unwelcome beau in his place. As she saw the pair approach that evening, the busybody Russian abandoned her observation post by the window and ran downstairs in her robe and hair rolls. Fearing a scandal, Mom briskly ditched dad and ran upstairs. To her surprise, Natalya Sergeyevna reappeared a few minutes later all radiant and smiling. "I gave him hell, but he was very polite and kissed my hand," she reported to Mom, laughing coquettishly. "He seems like a very decent man."
Mom was still not convinced, but Dad now had a powerful ally. Excited to be at the center of a brewing romance, Natalya Sergeyevna took upon herself to be the intermediary of love. "Medea, if you line up all the men in this city and throw them into the Neva River, we all will be better off," she told my mother. "But every now and then there is a diamond in the rough, and when you find him, you hold him tight."
She provided two tickets to the opera, where she was a perennial understudy. Mom and Dad could barely hear her as she sang Maddalena's part in Rigoletto, but Natalya Sergeyevna's main job at the theater – she freely admitted – was to listen rather than sing, and then report everything she heard to "you-know-where."
As a matter of fact, after a year of living together in a small apartment Natalya Sergeyevna began sharing more than my mom wanted to hear.
"So my neighbor upstairs was making and mending dresses, and I was losing sleep at night because of the constant rat-a-tat of her accursed sewing machine," Natalya Sergeyevna once said, as she removed the war paint that she called make-up. "I reported to you-know-where that she was working illegally and they kicked her out of her flat. She should consider herself lucky: Back in the day she'd be working that sewing machine in a labor camp."
Mom eventually grew fond of the KGB informant with a fading mezzo soprano, despite her chilling stories and occasional insults dressed as complements. ("You speak excellent Russian, I never thought Georgians could speak like normal people; you are so beautiful and have no facial hair, even though you are a Georgian.")
One day Natalya Sergeyevna asked Mom to come to church with her. Born into a family of scientists, mom did not particularly care for religion, but she obliged. She was startled to see Natalya Sergeyevna pray fervently in the church, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"I've done bad things to people, my girl. I hope God forgives me for it when I die," she told my mother. "Medea, promise me that you are going to cry for me when I die. Please Medea, I need to know that someone will."
In the meantime, Mom and Dad's strolls on Nevsky Avenue grew frequent. At the end of these walks, a beaming Natalya Sergeyevna would insist that Dad stay for some tea and pancakes. He then had to suffer as Mom took to the piano and Natalya Sergeyevna wailed the countess's part from the Queen of Spades: "je crains de lui parle la nuit…"
Word about the strolls by the Neva River eventually reached Tbilisi. Researchers and relatives, who lay in wait with rival grooms in hand, began frantically calling my grandmother.
"Galina Mikhailovna, don't make a mistake. That boy is not even tenured yet. He and his mother are huddled in one of those new flats with a low ceiling." (Soviet urban planners' penchant for squeezing citizens into claustrophobic concrete blocks terrified Tbilisi old timers.) "The boy I'm telling you about is Professor X's son. She will be treated like a queen."
But Mom stood firmly by her choice. She returned to Georgia to declare that it was either going to be my dad or no one.
Then one day, Dad's smiling face presented itself in a large, bright Tbilisi apartment with a palatial ceiling and a giant poster of Mendeleev's Periodic Table on the wall. He handed over a bagful of Mishka chocolates that he had brought from Leningrad and asked teary-eyed Galina Mikhailovna for her daughter's hand. With his trademark happy smile and refined decorum he quietly disarmed the family members who had gathered at the flat for one last battle. "He is actually a very decent man," Aunt Tina whispered incredulously.
To sweeten the deal, Dad later returned with his friends to install a bell on Galina Mikhailovna's door to help her get over the fear of knocking – a fear she developed during the Great Purges of the 1930s, when she saw her friends and colleagues disappear one by one after a fateful, nocturnal knock on the door.
Back at his own apartment, Dad juggled rivaling claims to his attention by two women – my mom and his mom – with the latter becoming increasingly frail, bed-bound and demanding. "When he comes home, he just has to go into that room first and check on Mrs. Rochester," mom said in a Jane Eyre reference, as she complained to her girlfriends.
Other than that, the newlyweds rode the trolleybus to their institutes, went on faculty picnics and took strolls in the rustling woods. The door to their home was always open to friends and relatives. Colleagues often came from Ukraine and Russia to stay.
They sat around the table exchanging pleasantries and mortifying rumors about a colleague asking students for bribes, or becoming (the indignity!) a businessman – a pejorative term back then associated not just with mercantilism but with petty crime.
An excellent story-teller, Mom always claimed the spotlight, except when the conversation touched on blast furnaces at steelworks in Ukraine and Georgia, the one topic that would get Dad truly excited. Otherwise, he was happy to let his Medea play first fiddle in just about everything. She reorganized the apartment, removed from sight the ceramic shepherd and shepherdess figurines that kept marching into the home as gifts, and brought beige wallpaper, for beige is the only tasteful color.
Dad in the meantime smiled guiltily as he listened to Galina Mikhailovna's criticisms, to his mother's complaints, to the angry tirade that Mom dumped on him after suffering through the pains of childbirth. ("Why did you come for me to Leningrad?! I was happy with my life. I did not want this!")
He ran around ecstatically, newborn in-hand, as Mom lay in bed and struggled to feign joy over the arrival of another man in her life. All the fuss about the ugly, screaming bundle of mucus made little sense to her and she just could not get over the body-wrecking experience. Dredging up a smile for the sake of visitors, she mentally vowed never to go through with it again, but failed to keep her promise – I'm living testimony to that.
Then aging Soviet leaders began stubbornly dying one after another (Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko). In Tbilisi, Dad could be seen hurrying home, smiling ear-to-ear, toting a little bike or a motorized Czech toy train that had cost him dearly. As he played the good cop, Mom tirelessly imbued my brother and me with culture, manners and guilt.
She made us listen to English lessons on vinyl records. She sat next to us as we clumsily arpeggiated on the piano and told us to banish tension from our wrists. After watching us agonize over math problems for hours, she'd eventually lose patience and solve them in a split second. Then we were finally allowed to watch Russian cartoons with melancholic songs and sad lessons about life.
After school, my brother and I would go to my grandmother's. Seizing the moment, Galina Mikhailovna would excitedly tell her less-than-enthusiastic audience about the properties of carbon monoxide and sulphuric acid. But she did hold us in the palm of her hand when she told stories of her magical, princess-like childhood before the Bolshevik Revolution, of the terrifying knocks on the door, of how she ran through a steamy railway station in the fall of 1945 to greet a returning soldier (yes, my grandfather).
On New Years' Eve we would all gather around a hideous Soviet plastic tree (the tree and Father Frost came to the atheist empire on New Year's, not Christmas), a pair of mass-produced plastic Father Frost and Snow Maiden figurines, and mayonnaise-soaked Russian food, thankfully mixed with colorful Georgian dishes. When midnight struck, Dad would raise a toast – always to the new year being better than the last. We stuck to that tradition for decades, always getting together as a family for evening.
Perestroika with a personal touch
Tired of old leaders kicking the bucket, people in Moscow finally decided to put someone younger in charge. This enthusiastic new comrade-in-chief – whom everyone called "the marked one" for his unforgettable birthmark – summoned the leader of Soviet Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, to his side to help reform the aging USSR.
While Shevardnadze was busy being the silver fox of Soviet foreign policy, his replacement at the republican level began cleaning house, building his own network of influence in Georgia. Jumber Patiashvili removed his predecessors' loyalists from top to bottom. Heads even rolled at the Polytechnical Institute: The chief of Dad's department had to step down.
Looking for a replacement both capable and unsullied by political associations, the institute's administration turned to my dad. "We've decided to go out on a limb and put a decent man in charge for once," the rector told Dad with a note of derision in his voice.
Decent is the one qualifier I've always heard in reference to my dad – either reverently or mockingly – even though to me his main quality was patience. To everyone else however, being a decent man was the biggest feat or folly in a country that made it extremely difficult to be one. He did obsessively stick to the rules when everyone was busy tricking and stealing from a system that was built to be tricked and stolen from.
The math teacher at my school once told the class that she would not be at all averse to receiving occasional tokens of appreciation. Taking the hint, some of my classmates' parents began dropping off fancy cakes and perfumes in her office. She reciprocated by selectively dispensing high grades. Even though I was probably nine then, I intuitively knew that there was something off about this quid-pro-quo, so I did not tell my parents and simply began saving the change I was given to ride the trolleybus to school. Then I went to the school cafeteria and bought an entire heap of bubliki, cheap pretzel-like bread rolls.
It turned out that my math teacher did not share my fascination with the chewy rolls. She grew red with anger when I appeared in her office wearing a big smile and rings of bubliki around my neck and arms. "Is this the best your family can do or is this your idea of a joke, Lomsadze?" she said as a clip over the ear sent my head ringing. With much effort, I pushed the bubliki into a hallway trash bin and went down to meet Dad, who came to pick me up. Skipping the part about the slap, I confessed that I might have mortally offended my beloved teacher.
He grew pale, squatted in front of me and said that his son should never take or give bribes, and that a man needs to live a life of honesty. Over my protests, he then went up to the teacher and dragged me along. It was the first time I heard him raise his voice.
His intransigence did not earn Dad too many friends at his institute, but his new position did bring perks. He was finally paid more than Mom (a whole 360 rubles a month - take that, Galina Mikhailovna!). While reforms were underway all across the Union, Dad was doing his own little perestroika at his department. Busy as he was, he stuck to his daily duties as a nurse to his mother, who by that point required round-the-clock care.
He once took me to his office to attend the unveiling of an IBM computer, a sparkling new American toy that was supposed to change everything, except nobody at the department knew what to do with it.
Perhaps the biggest perk of Dad's new job was that he got pushed forward in the years-long line for a land plot for a dacha – having a country home was the pinnacle of achievement for the Soviet intelligentsia. One summer day, he started his extremely uncooperative, muddy-orange Moskvich and took his doubting family to a stretch of solid rock that nobody wanted, and declared that he was going to build a little house and a wonderful garden for us there.
The house was barely complete when Soviet troops marched into an increasingly defiant Tbilisi in April 1989. The bloody night that followed became one of the key nails in the empire's coffin.
The Soviet Union and Natalya Sergeyevna died the same year. My mother did spare a sad thought for the latter, but was excited to be rid of the former. Like everyone else, she looked forward to a new dawn.
Darkness at dawn
Soon armed men, bearded and bandannaed, were riding around Tbilisi on tanks. Everyone was shooting at everyone in the city where everyone knew everyone. With electricity and heating gone, the country plunged into darkness.
My parents stood in a breadline, flummoxed and helpless in a crowd of angry, desperate people snatching loaves from each other. "Excuse me; would you please," they kept repeating futilely before returning empty-handed to a dark, frozen home. All the sophistication and knowledge they had spent their lives acquiring was rendered useless overnight.
They sold their engagement rings. Next went the gold medals they got for academic excellence. One by one, darkness claimed all the family heirlooms.
The nation was also selling away its assets and memories. Out went railway tracks, power lines, irrigation pipes. My father's beloved blast furnace, the pièce de résistance of Georgia's largest steel plant, was sold for scrap. The house on the rock was repeatedly robbed and ultimately gutted to bare walls. Refugees squatted in the research institutions. A drunk Russian president danced on TV.
His old gang by his side, Dad stood in the biting wind at the cemetery, beating himself for failing to put even a modest stone on his mother's grave. The bed-ridden centenarian did not make it to the new century. Oblivious to the tectonic changes happening outside her room, she spent her final years talking to ghosts from the past.
Unlike her, shawl-draped Galina Mikhailovna remained lucid and full of amazing stories to the very end. Also knocking on 100, she quietly took her leave (without a fuss, just as she wanted) after telling us for the last time to always be kind to humans and flowers.
When the darkness receded, Dad was left an old man, gray and slouching. The notion that an employee should receive a regular salary had not yet returned to Georgia, but he stubbornly plodded to the university to teach in the dilapidated classrooms. Over the following years, he and my mother gradually swapped roles. Now she fussed over him, reminded him to take his pills and cooked low-fat food.
Pretty shopfronts soon covered Tbilisi's scarred face and tourists came flocking in. The city where once everyone knew everyone grew larger, taller and busier. Dad began having trouble getting out of the house, so Mom ran around the neighborhood stores. Ever polite, she smiled back as language grew informal and young people took to calling her “grandma” in a city she could not recognize anymore.
The last few years they spent mostly sitting in one sun-dappled room, watching TV and gasping at the latest horrible thing the Russian president did. With the world around changing fast, they sat in that room, sipped tea, guessed each other's thoughts without words and tried not to be a bother to anyone. Even when the ambulance came rushing in the wee hours of January 3, they kept apologizing to the paramedics for the trouble they caused at such an ungodly hour.
Three days before that, my father wished us a happy new year for the last time as we gathered in keeping with the family ritual. He regaled us with some of his many stories and explained in an astounding detail the structure of Ukraine's besieged Azovstal plant.
On January 4 I sat in a large room, staring in disbelief at the refrigerated coffin. Friends and family popped in to remind me of the many observances we had to organize (death is a very long and complicated business in Georgia). Someone handed me a family album so I could shortlist Dad’s photos for the funeral. The album offered a much-needed distraction from thinking about my mother and how empty it is going to feel in that sunny room, which she had shared with the love of her life for almost half a century.
As faces smiled at me from the black-and-white photos I mentally leafed through their stories. These were people I knew or I felt I did because they had been described to me so vividly; people who obsessed about being decent, courteous and kind in any circumstance; people who are my own, personal Gone With the Wind. I realized the one thing I could do for them is tell their stories.