How Memory-Keeping Solved a 23 Year Mystery

By Abby Schreiber

Random acts of kindness - how often do we perform them and never think twice about it? What if we were able to see the impact of our actions on others? This rhetorical question became a reality for Tracy Peck on Saturday, April 30.

“Have you seen this CNN story?” read the message Tracy received from her friend. “That has to be you.”

It was a story about two sisters, refugees fleeing from the former Yugoslavia in 1999. On their plane ride to the United States, they met a woman who handed them an envelope. Inside the envelope were dangly earrings, a $100 bill, and some words of encouragement. As Tracy opened the article, the words staring back at her were her own.

Apparently, one of the sisters, Ayda Zugay, had been looking for Tracy for years. As a refugee, she’s never been one to hold onto much - she’s a minimalist in many ways. But she’d kept this envelope for over two decades.

The envelope and note written by Tracy Peck in 1999.

Photo credit: Ayda Zugay

To some, this chance encounter would be a random act of kindness, soon forgotten. To Ayda and her sister, it was a life-changing & defining gesture.

On the note, the word “safe” was underlined. To the sisters, that meant everything. Their home had been anything but safe up until that point.

"It was the first time that I felt, like, relief,” said Ayda. “This is a safe place, and we can build a future here. I think that's why the letter really resonated with me at that time, because we went from like this drastic horror into this beautiful act of kindness."

Saying “as luck would have it” cheapens the true power of this story; it was no happy accident that Ayda held onto this note. It was memory-keeping at its finest, and it would become integral in finding Tracy all these years later.

I think that's why the letter really resonated with me at that time, because we went from like this drastic horror into this beautiful act of kindness.
— Ayda Zugay

Eight years prior, Ayda first took to the internet trying to find Tracy. She had a few clues: she knew her first name, what she looked like, and that she played tennis (and played it well). The envelope also revealed two more clues: her handwriting, and a logo for “Holiday Inn Garden Court.”

But not much would come of that initial search - it wasn’t until April 2022 that Ayda’s story was reshared. CNN quickly picked it up, and it circulated widely on social media almost immediately.

In the end, it all boiled down to the note - that was invaluable.

Tracy Peck's daughter, Ashley, replying to Ayda's quest on Twitter.

Ayda received a reply on Twitter from Tracy’s daughter - the handwriting looked just like her mother’s. Then, Tracy’s tennis coach reached out as well. Not only was the handwriting a match, but the story sounded incredibly Tracy-esque.

That coach, Susan Allen, reached out to another one of Tracy’s coaches, Deanne Sand Johnson. Together, they realized that in May of 1999, they’d led a group of women - including Peck - to the French Open in Paris.

According to CNN: “Johnson kept a scrapbook documenting the trip. One page featured a team photo. Another included a receipt from a travel agency with the group's itinerary. The second leg of their return journey was a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on May 31, 1999 -- the same date and route Zugay recalled flying.”

This receipt shared by one of Tracy Peck's tennis coaches shows the itinerary for their group's 1999 trip. They were on a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on May 31. Part of the image has been redacted.

Photo credit: Deanne Sand Johnson

The evidence was undeniable: thanks to these long-kept pieces of ephemera, it was clear Tracy Peck was the woman on the plane all those years ago.

Just this week, the sisters were able to reunite with Tracy via Zoom. Vanja Contino, the second sister, said to Tracy, "Your generosity is still in me because I've been paying it forward ever since."

All it takes is a moment - a sliver of time - to change the course of a life. Your impact is tangible. And, of course, never underestimate the power of good memory-keeping.

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