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It was 1998 and I couldn't wait to get out of Buffalo.

Getting out of Buffalo was one reason I chose to go to nursing school at the grand old age of 49 - a degree in nursing would get me a job just about anywhere. The "anywhere" I chose was Atlanta, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

Although the years I spent at Erie Community College and Sisters Hospital School of Nursing were among the most challenging of my life, in September of '98 I became a licensed registered nurse, packed up the car and set off to my own version of the promised land. When I crossed the Georgia state line late one night, I wept with joy.

And so began my new life in the South. I found work as a Hospice nurse and loved it. It wasn't depressing, as many had warned, perhaps because of my strong spiritual beliefs. And the chance to offer unconditional compassion to a diversity of patients and families made the work rewarding and fulfilling.

The unexpected thing was that I missed Buffalo. Not the beef on weck or chicken wings - being a vague vegetarian, I'd never cared for that kind of fare. What I missed were my friends - people who knew everything about me and loved me despite my eccentricities.

In Atlanta, I had opportunities to form new friendships. But we had no history, and I learned on a profoundly personal level that "history" is a commodity only time creates. My father, Lou, a retired electrician and a wise man in his own right, had advised me: "You can't make new "old friends.' " I found it was true. And it was more than friends. I missed the city itself.

I didn't like living in a boom town. What others called progress felt like environmental devastation to me - huge swaths of woods slashed to make way for immense apartment complexes and malls. It seemed everywhere I looked the same pattern kept popping up, and it was a pattern I didn't like.

Western New York certainly needs economic development. I, like others, am looking for work. But a sane balance must be forged or a city loses its character and charm.

Finally, I missed Buffalo people. And so I returned. Upon seeing me, old acquaintances smiled. Several remarked, "Yes, there is something about Buffalo."

I was curious to find out just what that something was. Recently I've talked with people who, like me, left, lived in different parts of the country and then, strangely, returned. Western New Yorkers were more down to earth, they said. The place felt more "homey."

Twice I've gone to social gatherings, met people for the first time and felt that, despite what my father said, I had, in fact, made new "old friends."

The complexities of any reality cannot often be squeezed into several hundred words or less, and my reasons for returning certainly were complex. But I am delighted to be back in the city I once longed to escape.

Perhaps the bottom line is that I missed the spirit of Buffalo. The soul of Buffalo. Can a city be said to have a soul? If so, the soul of Buffalo is old and slightly tarnished, but eager to grow and thrive.

And solid to the core. Will I get a job? Will the upstate economy improve? Will my "new old friends" become old friends plain and simple? These questions will be answered in time, becoming part of my own personal history.

One thing I know for sure. Home is where the heart is, and I left mine right here.

RUTH GELLER lives in Kenmore.

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