I began my adventures in genealogy eager to trace my family tree all the way back to its European roots. So, in the early stages, I raced through generations, searching for evidence of where we began. But then something struck me: I suddenly knew more about distant long-lost relatives than I knew about my own grandparents.
Genealogy allows us to learn the stories of our ancestors, but it can also be a way to help us know those we have struggled to understand in our own lifetimes.
I knew my grandfather, Joe Layton, as a quiet, private man, always well dressed and immaculately groomed. He was emotionally distant, and usually wore a sad, serious expression. I grew up incredibly intimidated by him. On the few rare occasions when I saw him, we barely spoke, but sometimes we would write to each other, sharing bits and pieces of our lives. He also sent birthday and Christmas cards every year, and he always signed them, “Love, Grandma and Grandpa,” even though my grandmother had been in a coma since I was seven years old.
Sara (Buell) Layton was even more of a mystery than my grandfather. Unfortunately, she left almost nothing behind that might help her family understand her better. My grandfather, however, left a collection of letters, postcards, photographs, and memorabilia from the 1940’s that has helped me piece together a small part of his life that I knew nothing about before he passed away.
The story that unfolded led me to discover a common thread tying many generations and branches of my family tree together: failed attempts to leave home. There is certainly a history of this in many families, often fueled by the appeal of reinventing oneself somewhere new. Sometimes, though, the simplicity and familiarity of home can be difficult to leave behind – especially when the new life we build for ourselves doesn’t turn out to be as rosy as we’d hoped.
After graduating from high school, Joe worked with his father at a farm implement store in Greensburg, Indiana, but he quickly grew restless. On the morning of December 7, 1941 – just hours before news broke of the attack on Pearl Harbor – he set off for a new life in Chicago. Over the next few months, he wrote several letters home.
In the early letters, even though the United States was suddenly enmeshed in a world war, he remained optimistic and excited about his future. But, as the months wore on, the letters began to suggest a growing disillusionment with his new life. In one letter, he wrote, “What am I doing here?”; in another, “I miss you all a lot but think I would be better off here. not sure.”
Despite his uneasiness, he stuck it out, and in March, he received a promotion. He held onto a company newsletter announcing his new position to the rest of the staff, which read: “Boys be careful how you talk to Joe. He hails from Indiana where they call a spade a spade, where a man’s a man and the ladies like it.”
Clearly pleased with himself, he signed one of his letters, “J.D. Layton, Executive.”
By April, tales of his exciting job and trips to the theater were replaced with news of a citywide air raid test, and a story about a friend who received a phone call from her boyfriend stationed in San Diego. “I don’t think she has fully recovered as yet,” he wrote.
Signs of the war appear in his work files, as well. A letter from his employer, written “at the request of the United States Treasury Department,” advised him to set aside monthly contributions for the purchase of Defense Savings Bonds. In a company newsletter, the push continued, urging employees to do their “patriot’s duty.”
In May, he tried to ignore the war, enjoying his “luxurious” apartment and attending the horse races at Lincoln Fields. He tried to find happiness in his new life. But, he was surprised to find that it felt so lonely to him. After his quick rise to “Executive,” he signed an April letter, “J.D. Layton or to you – Joe.”
His homesickness is palpable.