Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Old Gray Mare (She Ain't What She Used To Be)

It ain't easy being the World's Oldest Woman. You die at least once a decade and just keep getting older.

In 1986, she shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 115. By 1993, she had passed on again, 117 years young, and in Pennsylvania of all places. As it stands, according to the people at Guinness, the World's Oldest Woman is forever 122, buried well deep in a graveyard somewhere in the French town where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night, not long after her thirteenth birthday. She claimed to have met the guy. 

But there remain a handful of hardscrabble Georgian villagers who would tell you that 122 is some weak shit, indeed. They come from a hard country. People die young there, and live even longer. They would have you know that the World's Oldest Woman was 132 years old when the almighty tamada finally summoned her to the great supra in the sky last September.

Her name was Antisa Khvichava, and I met her a couple of months before she died.

I was sitting on the couch with my host family on a Tuesday night, watching the Georgian news, feeling like the World's Oldest Man. It had already been a long summer. All my old friends were off on vacation, my new friends yet to arrive, so there was mostly nothing to do, and nothing whatsoever to insulate me from my host mother. Neither of my bank accounts were functioning, so I also happened to be flat broke. Escape was not an option. I couldn't even afford to leave the house - or at least, if I did, there was nowhere but noplace to go. 

It wasn't a total loss. I'd learned a lot of Georgian. I'd read a lot of books. And I'd taught myself how to use my busted left hand again, mostly through having my ass handed to me by my host brother, playing a bootleg version of Pro Evolution Soccer. We played every night, on ye olde PC. And before long, I could type again. Other than that, all we had was potatoes, cucumbers, plenty of salt, and the Georgian news to keep us sustained and relatively sane. 

I can't say from experience, but I suspect that the Georgian news is not fundamentally different from what North Koreans watch in North Korea. Plenty of portly bureaucrats inspecting things. Plenty of portly bureaucrats inspecting other things. We had spent several hours that Tuesday evening watching portly Georgian bureaucrats inspect things and other things when my host family suddenly sprang into animation. My host mom cranked up the volume to bowel-releasing decibel levels. The kids and I were told to shut up. And there on the television screen appeared not another portly bureaucrat, but a weatherbeaten scrap of splotchy brown skin shrouded in bedsheets.

"What is that?" I asked.
"That," said my host mom, "is the World's Oldest Woman."
"Cool," I said. "How old is she?"

I never got the hang of the Georgian numeral system, nor did I ever put much faith in village folklore – the same folklore that would have you wear a wet scarf to cure strep throat; the very same that would have you drink 120 proof cha-cha to cancel out a headache – so I was doubly unconvinced.

"World's Oldest Woman," I murmured.
"She lives here, you know," said my host mom.
"In Georgia?"
"Yes. In Sachino."
"Sachino? We've been there before. That's five minutes away."
"It is," she said. "I was born there."
"Do you know her?"
"Of course I do. She was a hundred years old when I was born."
"Is she really the World's Oldest Woman?"
"Yes. There can be no doubt."
"I'd very much like to meet her."
"What are you doing Friday?"
"Meeting the World's Oldest Woman," I said.

My arrival in Sachino was as good an excuse as any for the villagers there to throw a supra, so a supra was thrown. The first familiar person I bumped into was Lado, a tall, wiry dude with all the delicate mannerisms of a meth-head. I shook his shaky hand and he tugged me back into a garden shed. I figured he was going to get me drunk, or murder me, or perhaps first one and then the other.

"Check this out," he said.
He kicked back a door and there, in a bucket full of blood, was a severed cow head.
"Interesting, no?"
I nodded.
"Very interesting, Lado."

My host grandma found us in there, saw the cow head, saw the delicate foreigner, and shook a splotchy index finger at Lado.

"Sadisti!" she cried. "Sadisti!"

Lado and I wandered back out to the front lawn and joined the oldsters who were gathered there, huddled around a table.

"Do you know this game?" asked Lado.
"Sitting around drinking and smoking?" 
"No. Backgammon."
"I don't know anything about it."
"But everybody in the world knows this game."
"Not me."
"Then I will teach you."

The first thing I had to learn was an alternate numeral system that Mingrelians only use when they're playing backgammon. I memorized the numbers and immediately forgot them. It didn't really matter anyway. The oldsters, watching me play, swiftly established that I had the cognitive capacity of a Svani goatherd and took over operations. I sat and watched them play against Lado.

"Congratulations," said one of the oldsters, when I was already well past half-asleep, "you won."
"Good game," said Lado, and shook my hand.
I was undefeated, and remain so.

We got up and shook every palsied oldster hand held out to us. Then Lado tugged me over to the chicken coop. He had something else to show me. He plucked up one of the birds at random, threw it down on a tree stump, and sliced its head off with a bowie knife. Sadisti, indeed.

The adults were hard at work fixing dinner, so my host mom told me and my host brother to go down to the river and do kid stuff. The path took us through the village graveyard. 

The modern Georgian tombstone is a sight to behold. You wouldn't want to order one for yourself. It is not clear to me how exactly the things are made, but they have the appearance of having been screen printed in a t-shirt shop. A photograph of the deceased, at his or her prime in life, no wart or nosehair omitted, everything chiseled into the stone much too precisely. I respect Georgians and I respect their dead, but "tacky" is the word that springs to mind when it comes to their tombstones. Nobody wants to be remembered the way they actually were. Or at least I don't. One such tombstone, belonging to my friend's host cousin, featured the poor guy jabbering into a mid-90's first-edition Nokia cellphone that was roughly twice the size of his head. Sad. Embarrassing. Permanent. In any case, no reception wherever he's at.

There were pigs rooting around in the graveyard and a few of the more devout ones were trying to get into the church. My host brother punted them away and we went inside. We stood in the back and watched a poor old babushka wail at the altar until the guilty itch of heathenism crept up my spine. I shuddered a bit and made instinctively for the door. My host brother looked at me and shrugged. We went down to the river.

We skipped stones, something my host brother is very good at, a skill I never mastered because the mucky Missouri of my youth was the sort of river where you were liable to peg a rotted corpse six times out of ten. My host brother got tired of trying to teach an old hobo new tricks, so we started gathering up great big boulders and chucking them willy-nilly into the river, reversing tens of thousands of years of geology in about five minutes, laughing and laughing and scaring the bejeezus out of the muddy mudskippers. 

That got old, too. And exhausting. I sat down on a rock and smoked a Pirveli and watched my host brother build a small boat out of a stray chunk of cardboard, some twigs and some threads of grass. This, I thought, was a pretty neat idea.

"We should write a message and stick it on the boat," I suggested. "Maybe someone will find it. Maybe we'll find it when we get back to Jgali."

I was the Hobbes to his Calvin. He, the Calvin to my Hobbes. He thought this was a dumb idea. My host brother had nothing of the sort in mind. He nudged the boat adrift and pummeled it with stones until it sunk to the bottom.

We walked upstream a bit until my host brother found a full bottle of water bobbing against the banks. He handed it to me and gestured for me to throw it at something. I tried to bounce it off a nearby pile of stones, to see what would happen. What happened was: the cap blew off and everything exploded in my face. And it wasn't water. It was pure cha-cha. I nearly puked on the spot. I hadn't brought a change of clothes to Sachino, so I'd have to spend the next couple days smelling like I'd been on a weeklong bender. Luckily, for most Georgian men, such is seldom far from the truth. So I'd blend right in. More or less.     

Later that night, there was wine and there was toasting. Then there was a power outage, which made drinking more difficult than usual. In the darkness, I ran into a dude named Sachino who was born in Sachino. I told him that my name was Grand Forks, North Dakota. Not a bad evening. But I went to bed early. I had a date with the World's Oldest Woman the following afternoon and I couldn't afford to show up looking more haggard than she did.

The next day, I sat around in the living room (where my temporary bed happened to be) and read a book about Georgia's most recent war with Russia. I couldn't make much sense out of it. The war or the book. I put the book down and watched and waited. People kept popping in and out. They'd probably been watching me sleep. There were host cousins running rampant, host cousins I'd never met before, host cousins whose duty it was to give me semi-permanent cluster headaches. They were from Tbilisi, the big city, which meant that they possessed all sorts of things that my host siblings did not: smartphones, new clothes, good haircuts, snotty accents, decent English teachers, decent English. I got to witness the way my host sister's eyes glazed over the first time she held a smartphone in her hands, and it reminded me of the way the religious neighbor kids used to zone out when they came over to my house and saw that we had Predator on VHS. Within an hour of touching the thing, she was begging me to sign her up for Facebook.

"The Face Book?" I said. "Never heard of it."

I'd sooner set a kid up with a coke connect.

I decided to take a nap. Feeling mighty old, indeed. And I slept and I dreamt that I was trapped in a fundamentalist Christian concentration camp, but that I'd broken out of it by making a really good joke. My host sister woke me up before I could remember how it went.

"We are go to see old woman soon," my host sister said, "but we wait for our guide."
"Yes," said my host sister, giggling. "She is wery beautiful woman."
"Is that a fact?"
"Wery beautiful. Wery, wery beautiful."

It was impossible to unscramble the giggling. There was a slight chance - a wery slight chance - that our guide would turn out to be the one young, single, beautiful woman in the entire Mingrelian countryside, and that I'd need to take a quick shower and wash my clothes in a foamy bucket full of quantum anti-cha-cha and put on some deodorant before she arrived. But this did not strike me as especially likely, or even possible, so I decided that I would tempt fate and remain rurally grody.

There was a knock at the living room door. It opened. And in walked a gender-neutral photocopy of Lado.

"Do you think she is very beautiful?" giggled my host sister.
I wasn't at all sure what to say.
"You are confuse," said my host sister. "That because he is not girl and she is not boy."
"Oh," I said. "I see."
"You have this in America?"
"Yes," I said. "We do have this in America."
"This Lado's sister," she said, "or brother. Nobody know."
She giggled. 
"Grow up," I said to my host sister.
"My name is Eliso," said Eliso.

We shook hands.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
"You too. The old woman is not ready yet. Let's go to the river."

We rounded up Nini - my five year old host cousin, she of the Hello Kitty smartphone - and we went walking along the river. Lado's intersex sibling had a destination in mind, but as often happened, I did not know the Georgian word for where we were going and nobody knew the English word for where we were going, and our game of charades only confused me further. So we kept walking. We plucked foul-smelling berries from the trees and ate them. My host sister taunted me with snails. Nini recited all the foul words she'd learned from my host brother, who had learned them from me. We'd been walking about an hour when we came upon a waterfall storming down from the mouth of a cave, like something out of The Goonies.

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for generating fear responses in humans, and I am convinced that most Georgians do not have one. My host sister and Eliso kicked off their shoes. Eliso picked up Nini and sat the fragile, pretty, delicate little five year old girl on his or her shoulders. They began scaling the slick, twenty foot vertical wall up to the mouth of the cave. My host sister tried to get me to come with them, but I'd just gotten my cast removed. I'd sworn off acts of physical idiocy for the time being. In any case, I was far too chickenshit to do anything of the sort. I'd always been. Too chickenshit. I was too chickenshit to even watch them climb. That girl. If she fell. While they climbed, I lingered near the base of the waterfall. Just in case. But when they arrived at the top, I could hear their voices reverberating high up above, telling me how beautiful it was up there, telling me to climb up there myself. I wouldn't. I couldn't. I never would or could. I sat down on a rock and smoked a Pirveli.  

Then we walked back into town. My host brother was waiting for us. And together we walked to the house of the World's Oldest Woman. Eliso opened the front gate and we followed. An old woman was working in the front lawn, drawing water from the well. She unstooped slightly when she saw us coming.

"Hello!" called Eliso. 
The old woman said nothing.
"This is my foreign tourist friend," Eliso said, indicating yours truly. "He thinks your grandma is fascinating and wants to take some pictures with her."

I pieced together what was being said and cringed. The word turisti rubbed me the wrong way. I hadn't come to gawk. A picture with the World's Oldest Woman was not what I had in mind. But what did I have in mind, exactly? What did I hope to accomplish by meeting someone over one hundred years my senior? Would I have even come in the first place if, say, she were merely 112? I began to feel suspicious of myself, and suspicious of my motives, and all and all, tremendously guilty in the residually Catholic way.  

"Can we come inside and see her?" asked Eliso.
"She is not feeling very well these days," said the old woman, "but I will see if it's okay."
"Look," I said to Eliso, after the old woman had shuffled inside, "it's not important. We can go. We should go."
"But we're already here. You've traveled so far."

An old man had come out onto the porch, hunching along on a cane. He looked us over and hobbled back inside.

"Her son," said Eliso.

After a while, the old woman came back outside.
"You can come in," she said.

It was a dark, clammy room, faded photos hanging here and there, no furniture at all but a cot in the corner, pressed up against the wall. And lying in the cot was the World's Oldest Woman.

Eliso nudged me.
"Say something."

I stepped forward.

"Hello," I said.

A pair of eyes emerged from the face, seemed to trace all over the room before they finally settled on me.

"How are you?" I asked in Mingrelian.
She said nothing, so I switched over to Georgian.
"Hello," I said. "How are you?"
She watched me. We made eye contact. She said nothing. I felt like a sperm cell.

"Well," I said, "I am from America. I am an English teacher. I teach English near Sachino, in a village called Jgali. It is very nice to meet you." 

The room expanded with silence. My host brother was shifting around and staring at his shoes. Nobody said a word. 

"We must go now," I said. "Long live you and your family."

I bowed slightly - a nervous holdover from my time in Asia - and turned around to leave. On the porch, the granddaughter of the World's Oldest Woman - no spring chicken herself - was waiting for us.

"She cannot understand. She has hearing problems," she explained to us, "and brain problems."

And that was it.

We went back to the house. Most of the hungover men playing backgammon were in even worse shape than the World's Oldest Woman. They still wanted to drink with me. My host mom didn't think this would be a good idea and I, for once, agreed with her. We got into a car with a guy named Soso - every bit as mediocre as his name would suggest - who drove us the five minutes to Jgali and then tried to touch me for ten lari. Gas money, he said. Fortunately, I was still broke.

In the end, all I could think of was how positively dumb it was for me to wish a long life upon the World's Oldest Woman.

Not pictured: The Author, because he sometimes has respect for human dignity.
(Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)
It wasn't until I straightened out matters at the bank - which takes about as long as you might imagine in Georgia - that I was able to get near the internet again, and when I finally did, I sat down and did some cursory research. Yes, it was true that Antisa Khvichava claimed to be 132 years old, and it was true that nobody could prove that she wasn't. But it was also true that nobody could prove that she was. She had grown up during an especially dicey epoch of Georgian history, and Georgia happens to be a country that has known very many dicey epochs, indeed.

She claimed to have been born on July 8th, 1880, and had a Soviet passport testifying in her favor. If said Soviet passport is testifying truthfully, she would've been 23 when the Wright Brothers took to the skies, 52 when Hitler came to power, and would've just turned 89 when human beings first walked on the moon. 

There are plenty of reasons for doubt. For one thing, no human being - save for Methuselah - has ever lived past the age of 122. 132 would seem to be quite a leap forward. For another, she would've had to have given birth to her son - the codgerly cane-supported fellow I met on her stoop - when she was sixty years old. More likely than not, nobody will ever know how old Antisa Khvichava was when she died. But I'm reasonably certain that the World's Oldest Woman I met was not, in fact, the World's Oldest Woman.

But she lived a very, very, very long time. That much is beyond doubt. She lived through all manner of horrible, and perhaps occasionally wonderful, things that I will never even be able to begin to imagine. She will almost certainly remain the oldest person I will ever meet, however long I live, and I don't plan on sticking around for 132 years.

She attributed her longevity to Georgian brandy - a substance that has killed many other Georgians well before their time, so perhaps it balances out somehow - and she was fairly independent, up until the very end. At her supposed age of 130, she could still do pretty much everything for herself. She only needed help getting to the family outhouse. Which was more than I could manage some nights in Georgia.

All of this information was obtained by Western journalists, who visited her village, and interviewed her through Georgian interpreters, and photographed her, generally with birthday cakes involved. I wonder where the journalists went for lunch. Where they shacked up. What they did for amusement. I wonder what they thought of the place. I wonder whether they ever ventured north to Jgali, where I lived. I never did the work any of them did. That's not my job. I have no job. But for what it's worth, I was probably the last foreigner Antisa Khvichava ever saw. Meeting her certainly changed me. I doubt I left any impression upon her at all.