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Hackie: Roots

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The complex of medical buildings on Tilley Drive in South Burlington houses numerous specialists. If you're a local facing a significant health issue, the odds are good that, at some point, you've been referred there. As I approached one of those buildings on a frosty, single-digit January afternoon, my taxi customer, Elizabeth Bird, stepped outside to meet me.

My first thought: Never was a surname more apt. Elizabeth was a birdlike wisp of a woman. But even though she was bundled up for winter, her resolute spirit shone through. "Old-school Vermonter" was etched in every line on her face.

"What do you like to be called?" I asked as I helped her step into the front seat. My mission was to drive her back, comfortably and safely, to her Winooski home.

"Oh, I go by any of the Elizabeth nicknames," she replied. "Whatever you prefer."

"Well, then, I'll call you Lizzy. I've always liked that name."

"I'm glad we got that squared away," she said.

If I had any doubts about her Green Mountain roots, her delivery of that last line — deadpan and dry as a bone — sealed the deal. To me, Vermont humor is like a Zen koan: You either get it or you don't. Explaining doesn't help a whit.

"So, Lizzy," I said, still chuckling over her rejoinder, "I'm guessing you're a Vermont girl."

"Yup, but not a country girl. I grew up on Battery Street in Burlington. We used to watch the fireworks over the lake from the front steps of our house. This was before what they called the urban renewal, which tore down the entire old neighborhood. Wasn't much of a renewal, if you ask me. Anyway, I was the youngest of 11 children. Sometimes I say 13, because my mom had two stillborn."

"Boy, you never see that anymore, those huge families. I don't think couples can afford it, for one thing. So, what were your parents' backgrounds?"

Lizzy smiled and said, "OK, that is where it gets interesting. My mother was Abenaki, and her mother died in childbirth when she was just a toddler. She spent the next few years in an orphanage until she was 8 or 9, when an older married cousin took her in."

"Wow, what a rough life for a little girl. I can barely imagine."

"Yes, it was, but she always said that her cousin and his wife were kind to her. And she met a good man, my father, when she was a teenager and made a good life with him."

"What was your dad like?"

"Well, he was easy to laugh, that's the first thing I think of. He was French Canadian, born in Canada just over the New York border. But he grew up in Salem, Mass., his mother's hometown. She was a witch, so I guess they didn't wipe them all out back in the times of the witch trials."

"A witch? Your grandmother? Did you ever spend time with her?"

"Oh, yes, we visited with her in Salem many times, and sometimes she'd travel up to Vermont. I loved her a lot, Grandma Lori. I didn't quite understand the witch thing, but she was known as a great healer. I remember people would show up at her house, and she would help them."

A part of me envied Lizzy's knowledge of her family background. All four of my grandparents were immigrants to America, hailing from Eastern Europe and Russia. But, as inexplicable as this seems to me now, no one in my extended family ever thought to ask them about their lives in the old country. Perhaps their memories were not happy ones, and it was too painful to look back.

Whatever the reason, I know virtually nothing about my ancestral history, and at times it feels like a huge blank space in my existence. It probably helps explain my fascination with other folks' family trees.

Lizzy directed me to her street, located in the extensive old neighborhood west of Malletts Bay Avenue. It's a community of modest homes, originally built to house the Winooski mill workers.

"Have you lived here long?" I asked as we pulled into the driveway of a small and tidy ranch house. I shifted into park to finish up our chat and get paid for the ride.

"Yup, pretty near my whole adult life. We raised three beautiful girls in this house. My husband, God rest his soul, worked as a custodian for the Winooski School District. There wasn't anything that man couldn't fix."

"How about you? Did you work outside the house?"

"I sure did, on various assembly lines. I always loved factory work, the routine of it."

Lizzy's sharing of her life story touched me, and I told her so. When people open up to me like this, it always feels like a gift.

I thought about her Grandma Lori and wished I could have visited with her. Like Lizzy, I might not understand the "witch thing," but I think my restless spirit would have benefited from her healing presence.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Roots"