Vague childhood memories of pre-war London led to a remarkable Texas family reunion

Three siblings came together at a Texas airport after decades of estrangement.

October 21, 2018, 6:09 PM

A family reunion decades in the making unfolded last week at the international arrivals terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

Three siblings -- who lived separate lives after the eldest was abandoned as a toddler in a London orphanage -- met for the first time.

“I just turned to jelly,” Mary Winifred Meloy, who goes by Winifred, told ABC News. “I looked for years and years and all of a sudden -- she was there.”

“Well, anyway,” she said with a laugh. “I found her now!”

Her long-lost sister, Una Pereira, had almost given up hope, but now, after all these years, the void inside her had been filled, she said.

“I just gave them a hug. Maybe I hugged John too hard,” Pereira said of her brother. “He said, ‘Don’t break my neck!’”

PHOTO: Una Pereira, John Davis, and Mary Winifred Meloy leaving the airport.
Una Pereira, John Davis, and Mary Winifred Meloy leaving the airport.
Bob Pereira

'A lifetime wondering'

Raised in the London convent -- where she grew up and lived through the bombings and the brutality of World War II -- Pereira said that by this late in her life she could only grasp at thin strands of memories of her early childhood.

Pereira said she had no memory of her father or mother. But, she said, she did have a vague memory of a woman who visited twice -- once with a baby in her arms and a second time, a few years later, but this time with two toddlers, a boy and a girl.

There was a name, too: Winifred, which she said was embedded in her memory.

But who was Winifred? Her sister? The woman who visited?

She said she longed to know if her visitors were actually her family. And to know why she was left behind to live in the convent.

PHOTO: Nazareth House in Hammersmith, London is pictured on Feb. 7th, 2018.
Nazareth House in Hammersmith, London is pictured on Feb. 7th, 2018.
Bob Pereira

All her life, Pereira said, she felt there was an empty gap in her life.

“I spent a lifetime wondering where they were."

“I saw them one time when I was 6 years old. I never saw them again,” she said. “But I knew they were [out] there.”

In 2012, her son Bob ordered a genetic ancestry test and a few new details emerged: Pereira was half-Chinese.

The new information was tantalizing and frustrating, leaving the now-92-year-old grandmother with even more unanswered questions.

'You don't give up hope'

For years, her sister Winifred had felt an empty gap in her life, too. When she was a young child her mother told her she had a sister.

In her early 20s, she started searching for her. She would write letters to the convent, but no one was able to shed any light on the mystery.

PHOTO: Una Pereira, front, waits with her daughter Theresa Wright and her husband, John Wright, Oct 18th, 2018.
Una Pereira, front, waits with her daughter Theresa Wright and her husband, John Wright, Oct 18th, 2018.
Bob Pereira

Still, Winifred said, she wouldn't let it go.

“You don’t give up hope on things like that,” she said. “It’s always on the back of your mind.”

Winifred and her brother John had left London as young children fleeing the war, but she knew no matter where she went her sister needed her.

“She’s my sister,” Winifred explained. “She had to be somewhere -- and I had to find her.”

Putting puzzle pieces together

It would be Pereira’s grandson, Christopher Pereira, who was ultimately able to put the missing pieces of the family puzzle back together.

In the autumn of 2017, he returned home to Texas for a visit.

He would ask his grandmother about her distant past, but she always seemed reluctant to talk about it.

That all changed with a single question he put to Pereira: if you won the lottery, what would you do?

She said she would want to find out who her mother was and what happened to her as a baby.

I just turned to jelly. I looked for years and years and all of a sudden – she was there.

The younger Pereira, a band manager, was scheduled to leave on a European concert tour earlier this year, but instead of returning to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, he stayed in London.

He knew the key to unlock the mysteries of his grandmother’s early childhood must be somewhere in the Nazareth House Hammersmith convent.

“It’s daunting,” he told ABC News, describing his first trip to the London convent.

“I’m imagining my grandma being a little kid there. It looks like a place where only bad things happen.”

He arrived at the convent and ended up in the waiting room, where he began to muse about his family’s past and became intrigued.

“I realize I’m sitting in the same waiting room where my grandmother met that woman," he said.

Another roadblock

Then, another roadblock emerged. The archivist at the orphanage was reluctant to divulge information about Pereira's grandmother without a notarized letter.

He contacted his father, Bob Pereira, who sent a notarized letter by overnight mail.

The grandson returned to the convent the following day, anxious for a breakthrough. Instead, he said he waited for another hour in the orphanage’s now-familiar waiting room.

Finally, he said he heard footsteps approaching, and the archivist appeared, holding a folder.

The archivist told him that an Una Goodwin had been admitted to the orphanage around the same time -– by a Matilda Davis.

“Matilda must have been her mom,” he said.

The archivist said his grandmother was admitted as a 2-year-old girl.

Pereira said he contacted his family back in Texas, and they start trying to piece together more of the puzzle with the new information he had uncovered.

Still, it proved to be not enough, and for months it seemed to the Pereira family that they had reached a dead end in their ancestry investigation, all three of them told ABC News.

In February of this year, Christopher Pereira returned to Nashville from his European concert tour with the mystery still hanging over the family.

By March, his father was ready to hire a private detective.

An unexpected break

But back in London, the convent archivist was cataloging Christopher Pereira’s visit when he unexpectedly came across another inquiry from 2004 seeking information about a little girl of the same age named Una.

The convent reached out to the woman who had inquired, and after securing her permission, mailed a letter to Pereira with the news about her sister.

The name on the letter read: Mary Winifred.

Pereira excitedly dictated a letter, enclosed childhood photographs, and mailed it to Winifred, the sister she thought she would never find.

Three days later, Pereira’s son Bob got an unexpected call from the United Kingdom.

He said he heard the voice of a man who introduced himself as Melvin Meloy, Winifred’s husband.

Meloy told Bob Pereira that his wife was in shock, and couldn't immediately come to the phone. Meloy said his wife had been searching for Pereira all her life.

When Winifred "gets on the phone and I say, ‘Hello, Aunt Winifred. This is Bob, I am Una’s son.'”

He said Winifred’s voice began to crack when she first said hello.

After so many years, a trans-Atlantic reunion would take time to plan -- too much time, they said, for two excited siblings in the twilight of their lives to wait.

So they learned to use Facebook video chat.

Face-to-face for the first time in decades, the sisters said, there were tears of joy, mutual frustration at why there had to be so much pain, but ultimately, the electrifying thrill of discovery.

The sisters spoke for more than two hours, they said. Over the ensuing months, the siblings would share pictures and message each other on a family Facebook group created in anticipation of the day that would fill a lonely void in each person's life with joy.

But there was a painful underside to the reunion.

Asked why his mother was left at the orphanage, Bob Pereira was reluctant at first to respond but eventually acknowledged a hard truth.

“She was an unwanted child,” he said, his voice heavy with sadness.

For Pereira, her new relationship with her long-lost siblings is bittersweet, she said with a mix of wistfulness and wise-cracking humor.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “But I am almost 93 years old. Don’t know much how longer we will all be together."

“It took a long time to get here!” she said, and began to laugh.