The Lady with the White Handbag

This is not the woman in the story - we've kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

This is not the woman in the story – we’ve kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

When Maria’s carer phoned us with this challenge, we thought it might be an impossible task.

Maria Stanislav, aged 53, was born in Staffordshire to Polish and Yugoslavian parents who had come to England during World War Two. Her mother, Anna, was a 28-year-old widow when she married Maria’s father, Jan, in 1950. Anna had a son called John from her first marriage, and was working as a canteen assistant in the Ordnance Depot in Bicester. After they were married, Anna and Jan went on to have three children, the youngest of whom was our client, Maria.

Because Maria was now severely disabled and unable to make herself understood easily, her carer, Brenda, called us to see if we could help. Acting as an interpreter, Brenda explained that Maria had lost touch with all her family members and desperately wanted to know where her mother was buried and whether we could find out anything else about her or Maria’s father. Most of all, Brenda explained, Maria just wanted a photo of her mum.

Finding photos of specific people is not an easy task. Sometimes you get lucky on Facebook. Occasionally, you will find one attached to a public family tree on Ancestry.co.uk. Less often still, one appears on a website posted by a member of the same family. Given Anna’s nationality and the era in which she lived – long before social media had been invented – we didn’t hold out much hope of being able to help. But Maria and Brenda persisted. “She really wants this,” said Brenda. “Please, will you do what you can?”

Our starting point was to track down Maria’s surviving family members and try writing to them. Maria’s parents had both already died and we could find no trace of siblings for either of them on the British BMD indexes. Looking for cousins would have meant finding Polish or Yugoslavian records on-line, which, we knew from experience are few and far between. Maria’s older sister, Nadeja, had actively broken contact with her and had even refused to tell Maria where their mother was buried, so we didn’t think she would be open to communicating with us. Maria’s older brother, Henry, was apparently living in Sussex under a different name – unfortunately for us, it was an anglicised name which was far more common than his original Polish surname.

Using the marriage and birth indexes we found several people who we thought might be Maria’s nieces. We wrote to them but the letters were returned unopened. We wrote to all the men in Sussex living under her brother’s new name, but no responses were forthcoming. No-one, it seemed, would even respond to us, never mind send us a photo.

Our last hope was to look for anyone who shared the unusual Yugoslavian surname of Maria’s half-brother. There were a few individuals, but we couldn’t tell how they all fitted together. We decided to write to them all and, yet again, after three months we decided that our attempts had come to nothing.

Until . . . two days ago, one of our pre-addressed envelopes was pushed through the door, with an intriguing thickness to it. It had been sent by the ex-wife of Maria’s half-brother and contained a photo from her wedding day. “Maria’s mum,” the letter said, “is the lady with the white handbag.”

We phoned the sender of the photo and asked if she would mind Maria getting in touch, then immediately forwarded it to Maria with contact details. The next morning Brenda called. “You can’t know how happy this has made Maria,” she told us, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.”

Some days you simply can’t beat this job!

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