Local Dispatch: She seeks embrace of city in same way as mountains gave

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It was 120 miles, give or take, from our home in Appalachia to the new one in Pittsburgh.

The GPS said to drive on an interstate, go north on a U.S. highway, and then take the turnpike through southwestern Pennsylvania. But the locals back in Maryland go through Barrelville, over Wellersburg Mountain. It would be approximately 114 miles this day, which would melt away in the rearview mirror.

Six miles less is six miles -- not much, about 10 minutes at the speed limit. Six miles. Ten minutes. Not much ... unless calculated over a lifetime.

I had come to the mountains decades before, not expecting to stay. I came that first time from the Pittsburgh airport, through a wintry landscape where roads were piled high on either side with mounds of Appalachian snow, more than I had ever seen. It was in the "before" time -- before kids, before job, before mortgage, even before marriage.

And before local. Before being of a place and knowing the expressions and phrases, the asides, the anecdotes, the history. Before knowing the family names, the lore, the hauntings, the food and eccentricities of a place, and being able to laugh before the punchline.

The Maryland residents around Cumberland and Frostburg were mountain people. Rednecks. Kin. Family. Hillbillies. Locals. Brand them what you will, but they had taken me in.

And I had become of the place, but now my husband and I were leaving family with foot to the pedal. Driving on.

As 114 miles passed in my rearview mirror, I watched mountains recede into hills and small towns into suburbs. Suburbs passed into tomorrow.

It reminded of other leavings, other goodbyes, other times I had been "local." Each goodbye had been planned -- an opportunity, yet a necessity. An opportunity to grow local in a new story.

Bob was at my side, my friend and husband of 41 years. I thought of him as my gardener, the one who nurtured. He was the one who had rescued me in a way, long ago when I was young and lacking in confidence. He was the one who encouraged me to bloom and the one whose place the mountains had been. He was a forester by occupation, a manager and caretaker of that living, breathing realm.

Each time of leaving someplace there had been gifts, promises of "I'll be back" and choruses of "We'll all visit, for sure. Next year, for sure."

But I seldom returned to those former places. The folks left behind never seemed to visit. Time passed. Regular phone calls became the occasional Christmas card. Eventually, there was no need.

Now we were in a new place, an urban place. A place to forge ahead, a place to retire, a place to be near grandchildren. We came to the city of Pittsburgh, atop every list for affordable, comfortable and enriching places to retire. And for the two of us, it would be so for three months. No more.

Death comes unexpectedly. All the cliches become reality. One moment we were dancing, taking ballroom lessons as part of the retirement fun. Laughing, a bit embarrassed. Bob had been my only dancing partner for decades.

I loved the feel of his arms around me, his scent and the silly things he whispered in my ear. But death comes like a thief in the night, and before the second session he was gone.

So now I'm surrounded by the new city people I've met. Yinzers. Steeler Nation. Blue collar. High tech. Locals. Brand them what you will -- they have taken me in. Now I am of this place: Glenshaw. North Hills. Hartwood. Beechwood. Shaler. The Point. Oakland. PNC Park. The Allegheny River.

The locals go through Barrelville, but they never really leave. They become the hauntings of a place. Bob and I will haunt our former mountain home as long as there are people who remember our presence.

"You remember Ruth and Bob. They're the ones ..."

And Ruth? She has found a way to bloom in this new place, this city of Pittsburgh, exploring local roads and allowing those roads to lead her until they no longer beckon.

Ruth Webster of Shaler, a retired elementary school teacher, can be reached at ruth.webster07@gmail.com

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