Long gone to Fla., she warmly retains Pittsburgh passion

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Dinner with old friends at DeBlasio's. A trip to Calvary Cemetery. A cousins' lunch at Walnut Grill. An old school drive-by to St. Catherine's. More cemeteries.

So it goes when a native Pittsburgher transplanted to Florida comes home to visit.

But, am I really home? If this is home, then why do I need a GPS to find the house where I grew up? Why the plunging stomach as I consider the odds of possible death by gravitational pull from the peak of Mount Beechview? And what about those commuter-filled, railed wonders whizzing past the 90-year-old houses with the homey front porches? What have they done with "Big Red"?

Really, it's too much to bear. Couldn't I just curl up in a cozy corner with Porky Chedwick on my transistor? A hearty day of Downtown shopping at Kaufmann's, Horne's and Gimbels would set the world right. Then I'd know I really was home -- that this inexplicably soulful city where I spent my first 20-some years still belongs to me.

Instead, I feel like a spectator, relegated to the sidelines. Being here is like bumping into an old boyfriend with his grandchildren: I'm pleased and unsettled at the same time.

In the movie "Moonstruck," a married, middle-aged woman gently rebuffs the advances of a would-be suitor. Her reason: "Because I know who I am." Did that self-assurance come from having spent her life rooted in one place, among people who knew and loved her?

If she'd left years before, would she have the same perspective? I think she'd have discovered that the up-front fun and freedom that come from severing tight, home-grown ties arrive with a practical price tag. Forging new connections weakens older ones; loyalties are diluted by time and distance. If "home is where the heart is," where is home when the heart's divided?

I've read that among U.S. cities, Pittsburgh claims the highest percentage of grown-ups who still live in their childhood homes. But I've never seen statistics on people who leave town in their 20s because their best friend moved to Miami. At 24, it seemed like a slam-dunk -- the beach, the weather, the beach, and, oh, then there's the weather. At 64 I would have sat down and thought it through a lot harder before doing anything rash.

Don't get me wrong. There is much to relish about the Florida lifestyle, most of it outdoors and much of it part of the "Where are you from originally?" crowd, who trade horror stories about snow shoveling and potholes.

For me, the magnets of sun and sand lost their attraction over time, replaced by more solid pursuits. My career as a paralegal led to activism in my tiny, rural community, which sparked a love for history, which ignited a passion for genealogy.

In Florida, the roads are smooth, the weather is (mostly) glorious and grocery stores sell beer and wine 24/7. Taxes are low. The natural world is ever-present and magnificent, with black bears and alligators, manatees and springs nearby. Thousands of people relocate to Florida every year and hardly look back.

And yet, when revisiting Pittsburgh, somewhere between the bittersweet nostalgia and the dizzying to-do list that comes with "just here for a few days," I can still find the key to me.

High on a hill -- 367 feet, to be exact -- on a cool, clear night, my fellow Mount Washington tourists and I cluster behind the iron railing. My hometown spreads below me like a beloved memory quilt casually tossed over a lumpy bed.

Where the others see scenery, stadiums and skyscrapers, I see my Irish grandfather crossing the Smithfield Street Bridge to his office job Downtown. I watch my Italian grandpa building tunnels for Pittsburgh Railways. I see my German great-grandfather toiling another grueling day at J&L Steel, and my other great-grandpa supervising the plumbing crew at the old Fifth Avenue High School.

Because they were Pittsburghers first, I can move away and come back and drive my rental car to Grandview Avenue and drink in the power and beauty they helped create. It sucks the breath out of me every time. And then it hits me: No matter what changes and where I move or travel, they gave me a home -- this home.

The crazy part is that I never forget, even for a minute, how much I really do belong.

Sandra Walters of Enterprise, Fla., who grew up as Sandy Faye in Pittsburgh's South Hills, can be reached at legalsandy@aol.com.

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