Chasing Ghosts in NYC

Annie Douglass at six years old.

The first memories most of us have as humans is the early touch of our mother’s arms, the smell of her breasts, the nourishment of her milk and perhaps the color of her eyes.  While these are not conscious memories, they are the first moments of life – imprinting history, heritage, and hopefully one of the most powerful loves we will encounter in a lifetime.

My great grandmother, Annie Douglass Broward, did not have those memories.  She was robbed of the touch of her mother by the sting of death from childbirth.  Margaret Annie Douglass died March 30th, 1867, just 17 days after the birth of Florida’s future First Lady. After 166 years, we have finally found the grave of Annie’s mother buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn New York.

The search for her grave started on a snowy day in Manhattan. I grabbed a bus with my husband Bob, and we made our way to the genealogy department of the main branch of the New York Public Library; a library we only recognized from the movie “Ghostbusters.” The day was historic in truly busting open the ghosts of my great grandmother’s past. The genealogist who helped me at the library told me my great great grandmother Margaret Annie Douglass had died the same year my great grandmother was born!

“How could that be?”, I thought, as I knew there was a woman named Effie*, whom I always believed to be the mother of Annie.  If I had not come to New York City to visit my daughter in Brooklyn, I might have remained in the dark about the death of Annie’s mother.  I was shocked in 2017 to learn of her death.  Heading back to the subway, I found myself mourning for her as I imagined Annie must have mourned for her mother all her life.

My daughter Anna was given her name when she was born in 1985 in Berkeley, California to honor the First Lady of Florida.  Now my daughter was living in New York City, in Brooklyn, at 5th Avenue and Douglass Streets. Imagine leaving JFK and asking the cab driver to take you to your daughter’s new apartment and discovering the address was at Douglass Street.

Anna was director of interactive content for the Hearst luxury magazine chain, a formidable job she had landed just a few years after graduating from USC in Los Angeles. Later that day, my daughter Jessica joined us as we went to Anna’s work in the famed Hearst building. Jessica had also lived in NYC while working as a soap opera actress out of high school on a famous daytime drama “Guiding Light.” This day felt like a guiding light as we asked the cab driver to take us to 57th and 8th Avenue.

Wait, at the New York Public Library I had learned my great grandmother was born at the home of her Scottish immigrant grandparents at 179 8th Avenue. So many coincidences! Now, Anna was living at Douglass Street and working on 8th Avenue.  Perhaps our immigrant grandmothers were channeling us? I was certainly feeling a sense of destiny.

Annie spent her early years growing up at 179 8th Avenue. She was raised by Margaret and William Hutchison, who had immigrated to New York City from the Orkney Islands of Scotland.  My father, Randolph, had told me of his grandmother’s pride in her Scottish heritage.

While Annie Douglass looks sophisticated and prosperous in her early photographs at six and again at thirteen–taken by well known NYC photographers–I now had knowledge of the emptiness she must have often felt never knowing her own mother. Perhaps that is why she was channeling us, her descendants, this day in New York City.

A year later Anna and her husband Tyler would have a baby boy and name him Beau Emerson Lyle at NYU on May 27th, 2018. They would bring him home to 5th and Douglass Streets, completing a circle in his American heritage in NYC that goes back to the birth of Margaret Annie Douglass in 1840 at 179 8th Avenue.

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