Keke was born to a family of Georgian Orthodox Christian serfs in Gambareuli near Gori in 1858. Her father, Giorgi (aka Glakha) Geladze, was a potter belonging to Prince Amilakhvari. He died young and the family was always poor, but somehow her mother Melania ensured that Keke learned to read and write. She had two brothers: Gio and Sandala.
At 17, Keke met and married Besarion Jughashvili. Her first two children died shortly after birth—Mikhail in 1876 and Georgy the following year from measles. Her third son (and last child), Joseph, was born on December 18, 1878 and survived. Nicknamed "Soso", Joseph grew up in a violent home: his father ("Beso") was incessantly drunk and beat his mother and him frequently. Once Joseph was beaten so hard there was blood in his urine for just over a week. When Stalin's father beat Keke, Keke occasionally fought back. Once, a blood soaked Joseph ran to the Gori police chief Davrichewy crying: "Help! Come quickly! He's killing my mother!" Joseph even threw a knife at his father while defending his mother. Before Joseph was 10, Beso left the family home (some sources say he was thrown out by his wife).
To support herself and her son, Keke took on any menial job available; mainly housework, sewing and laundering. They had nine homes in the next decade. She returned once when Beso promised to improve, but she soon left to live with Father Charkviani. Keke often worked in the houses of rich Jewish traders in Gori, and sometimes took her son along. She did housework for Davrichewy, laundered for Egnatashvili (the best man at her wedding), with whom she may have had an affair. Beso would smash his tavern windows when he heard. She eventually settled in a couture shop where she worked for 17 years. Joseph was said to have been a smart child and he entertained some of the householders, including David Pismamedov who encouraged the young Stalin to study, and gave him money and books to read. Charkviani's sons taught Joseph Russian.
His mother's ambition was for Joseph to become a bishop and she somehow accumulated enough money for his education, perhaps with Pismamedov's help. In 1888, she was able to enroll Soso into the Gori Church School and, later, with his mother's encouragement, he obtained a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, a Georgian Orthodox institution which he attended from the age of sixteen. She had made sure he was the best dressed of the boys on his first school day despite being the poorest. In 1890, Joseph's father kidnapped him after a serious street accident and made him work in the Adelkhanov shoe factory. His horrified mother fought desperately to send him back to school, appealing to all her friends and even the Exarch of the Georgian Church. Keke now laundered for the chairman of the school board at a salary of 10 roubles a month. Keke was so angry with Joseph when he was expelled from the seminary that he hid outside Gori for a while; friends brought him food.
Later in life, when Stalin achieved prominence in the communist regime in the 1920s, his mother was installed in a palace in the Caucasus, formerly used by the tsar's viceroy. There she is said to have occupied only one tiny room from where she wrote frequent letters (in Georgian – she never managed to learn good Russian) to her son and daughter-in-law.