My mother, Anna Cornelia Jansen Ryan, was the youngest of ten children born to Theodore Frederick Jansen of Utrecht, and Paulina Fredericka Vanderdonck, of Rotterdam, Holland. I am her youngest daughter.
About 20 years ago, on a cold and very rainy day in March, I was visiting my mother in Trenton, New Jersey. As I got ready to leave, she handed me a wooden cigar box filled with papers and told me to look after it. It contained an amazing assortment of documents saved by her father and mother — birth records, marriage certificates, death letters, holy cards, and more. There was even a record of a baby’s funeral, including the bill for embalming, candles, and a coach to the cemetary in Paterson, NJ.
I copied each piece of paper, then stored the originals between the acid-free pages of an album. And I dreamt of following up on those hints from the past, taking a trip through Holland to discover some of the places my maternal grandparents left, and, perhaps, to learn why they saved these papers.
Finally, this fall, my husband Steven Lerner and I took that trip — through the Netherlands and Belgium, papers in hand — to learn more about our family. This is a record of that trip, and of what those papers revealed.