FOR years, a wedding photograph of a Chinese woman and Caucasian man had been a mystery for Colleen Turzynski.
She did not recognise the couple in the picture which hung on the wall of her grandmother’s house in Poland. And for some reason, nobody was willing to tell her about it.
Only when she turned eight would her grandmother finally cave in, deciding that Colleen was old enough to know the painful truth about the people in the picture.
They were her Singaporean mother Lee Kui Yin and her Polish father Kazimierz Turzynski – both tragically murdered before Colleen was old enough to know them.
In 1990, when Colleen was just 17 months old, police discovered the bodies of Kui Yin, Kazimierz and Colleen’s paternal grandfather Mieczyslaw stabbed to death in their apartment in New Jersey, in the United States. All three, like Colleen, were deaf.
The revelation would weigh heavily on young Colleen, but it would take nearly two more decades before she would make any real connection with her past.
When she was 16, she made her first attempt to find out more about her parents, doing her best with sketchy details she got from her grandmother.
She knew that Kui Yin, a seamstress, had met Kazimierz, a performer, while travelling in Poland in the early 1980s. And that when Kui Yin returned to Singapore, the couple wrote to each other and their relationship blossomed.
The couple planned to settle down here eventually, but were thwarted by visa issues. They moved instead to the US. They were married in New Jersey in 1985. She was 35, he 31.
After the murder, Colleen was taken to Poland by her father’s family and lost all links to her mother’s family in Singapore.
The only tangible connections she had to her mother were two rings and a panda pendant that Kui Yin was wearing at the time of her death.
There were also some family photos, which Colleen kept in a little wooden box, used so often that one of the hinges broke.
“I wanted to be in contact with my mother’s family but I didn’t know how to reach them,” she said through a sign language interpreter.
She tried to find a Singapore embassy in Poland, but the closest one was in London, and she did not have the means to travel there.
She also hoped to return to the US to visit her father and grandfather’s graves, but her family encouraged her to complete her studies before doing so.
To earn extra money to put herself through school and save for her trip to the US, she worked in a bakery and as a cashier. It was only after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in financial management that she packed her suitcase, and bought a ticket to the US.
In November 2013, she was back in New Jersey, ready to piece together the story of her past.
At Newark airport, she was met by Robin and Bob, who had been her foster parents in the US after her parents died. Over the years, they had sent Colleen gifts and cards, but this was to be their first meeting in 24 years.
As Colleen, now 25, walked through the arrival gates, Robin said her heart just “flipped”.
“I saw the baby, with that same smile. It hit me hard, it was so hard not to cry,” she said.
But there was still another reunion Colleen was hoping for – the one with the Singapore family she had never met.
Colleen contacted the Singapore consulate in New York, which unfortunately could not help her locate her relatives.
But she had with her a Toa Payoh address which might have been her mother’s home in Singapore, and asked a Singapore friend she had met through Facebook to deliver a letter to that address. She never received a response.
Then in late November 2013, the first big lead came in a letter from the State of New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
Ever since I got to the US, I’ve been having dreams about my mother. I think she helped me find them.∼ Colleen, who believes her mother had a role in helping her track her Singapore relatives
In it were two names that Colleen had never heard before: Lee Chit Yong, who was thought to be her maternal grandmother but turned out to be the name of her maternal grandfather, and Daisy Lee, a maternal aunt whose name was actually Diana.
Colleen tried to find these names on Facebook but was unsuccessful. Then came an e-mail that provided a ray of hope.
The Straits Times had got wind of Colleen’s story, found her e-mail address and contacted her.
During the interview with The Straits Times, she produced a stack of documents, photographs and letters, hoping the information would help her trace her Singapore relatives.
When the article was published on April 7, 2014, the response was immediate. Three family members e-mailed The Straits Times claiming to be her relatives. They produced photos of Colleen’s parents and of her when she was a baby.
She had found her Singapore family.
Colleen said: “Ever since I got to the US, I’ve been having dreams about my mother. I think she helped me find them.”