As our plane taxied toward the terminal at Tbilisi Airport, I was excited to see a "Welcome to Georgia" sign in bright red letters and the republic's post-Soviet white flag with five red crosses. I was taking my 17-year-old daughter, Mariam, on a long-overdue, 5,700-mile trip to introduce her to her 88-year-old grandmother and namesake.
In the Arrivals Hall at 3 a.m., we found ourselves surrounded by fellow passengers' weeping, hugging friends and relatives, all gesturing and shouting elatedly in the Georgian language unfamiliar to us.
Our welcoming party amounted to one cousin, Zaza, who served as our driver and guide during our two-week stay.
It was a surprise visit, at least for Bebia (grandmother in Georgian), who is widowed and lives about a 31/2-hour drive from Tbilisi in the small village of Ontopo in the Samegrelo region. A refugee from the breakaway autonomous region of Abkhazia, she was forced to relocate at age 70 to a small, family-owned compound near the town of Abasha.
Although slow-moving and bent nearly double with age, this hardy matriarch lives primarily off the land with grandson Koba, who watches out for her. She makes cheese and bread daily and regularly tends to her cornfields and flower garden.
At her bedside, she has long kept a framed photograph of the American granddaughter she one day hoped to meet. Mariam was the product of my nearly impossible union with her Georgian father 19 years earlier under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program, which enabled us to meet outside Soviet bounds.
After touring Tbilisi, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mtskheta with its historic churches, we headed west into the countryside toward the Black Sea, then north to Abasha.
Dodging chickens, livestock, erratic drivers, and horrendous potholes, we finally arrived at the rustic gate to Bebia's modest compound. For the sake of the surprise, the rest of us crouched in the car as Mariam hesitantly lifted the latch. Bebia came out of the house, confused at first, then embraced her granddaughter, tears of joy and disbelief streaming down her wizened cheeks.
Two weeks of celebration ensued, and although Bebia didn't speak English and Mariam didn't speak Georgian, they seemed to understand each other just fine. Mariam carried water from the well and helped Bebia milk Botchola the cow. Sometimes, Bebia and Mariam would chat softly together while walking arm in arm or handwashing clothes.
After dark, neighbors arrived for lavish feasts of khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), figs, apples, hazlenuts, and plums, served with fine Georgian wines. We all repeatedly toasted our health, ancestors, world peace, friendship - anything anyone could think of to keep the celebrations running late into the summer nights.
Parting was sad, since grandmother and granddaughter probably will never see each other again. Bebia hobbled over to our car and placed a freshly picked bouquet of bright flowers on the dashboard. We drove away slowly, blowing kisses, as the tiny, bent image of Bebia Mariam faded from view, but not from our hearts.