One of the reasons why I headed to East Aurora, New York the night before my visit to the church in Mt. Morris is because that’s where Millard Fillmore’s house is located – another president’s house on my list.
I knew it wouldn’t be open on the day I was there, but I thought maybe I could walk around the yard, etc., which I did.
But the day did not start out well. I got up, ate breakfast and was getting ready to leave for my day’s journey, when I picked up the curling iron by the wrong end – not smart. Not smart at all. Let’s chalk it up to the fact that I was extremely upsettable because of my mom. Anyhow, my hand rather hurt, so I ran across the street to the CVS pharmacy and talked to the pharmacist on duty. She said she could give me lotion that would make it feel better, but that she thought I needed an antiseptic cream and they were out of it – so she sent me down the street to the Rite Aid. There they gave me the right cream which instantly took away the pain. Though I had three nasty-looking blisters, everything healed well.
Not the point of this blog post – but anyhow, that’s how my day started in the little town of East Aurora, New York.
From there I found the house which was only a few blocks away (not a huge town). The house looked quite charming on this beautiful fall morning – dew still covered the grass.
This wasn’t the grandest president’s house I’ve seen. In fact, it was one of the smallest – but it does have some interesting history.
But first – I really know little about Fillmore except he became president when Zachary Taylor suddenly died of well, no one is sure of exactly what. However, right before he died he ate a lot of raw fruit and drank a lot of milk. Which seems a strange combination to cause someone’s death. But several cabinet members also became ill, so no one is exactly sure what happened.
Unfortunately, Fillmore was caught in the controversy surrounding the 1850 Compromise – a plan to regulate in which states slavery was allowed. Fillmore was against slavery, but signed the Compromise thinking it might solve the slave situation. Obviously, it didn’t. Instead he made lots of enemies and didn’t get re-elected.
So anyhow, didn’t get to do much at the house, but walk around. I did learn that it’s one of the few (if not the only) president’s home that was partly built by the president himself.
But there is another interesting piece of history about the house. The house used to be in another location downtown. Margaret Evans Price (of Fisher-Price toys) bought it and had it moved to it’s present location. She then used it as her studio to design many of her children’s books and later toys. (She designed push toys to match the characters in her books.) The Aurora Historical Society bought it back in 1975 and turned it into a presidential museum.
I have no proof. Well, I have a birth certificate that says Wyoming County Hospital. And, I do have a couple pictures of my dad and mom standing in a backyard. In some Dad is holding me and in others Mom is holding me.
But that lawn could be anywhere – even Illinois.
So there you have it – a birth certificate and a couple pictures, but no memories.
And that’s my proof that I was born in New York …
Except for the stories. I’ve always heard the stories.
Because even though my parents only lived there two years (and maybe not even that long), so much happened in the little town of Mt. Morris, New York.
My parents backstory is the stuff movies are made of, or at least an episode of Unshackled (which it actually was). My mother grew up a semi-orphan in the strict home of a childless aunt and her husband. They spoke German when they didn’t want her to know what was going on, (which was often). Every penny they spent on her was faithfully recorded and invoiced to her father. They were good to her, just didn’t offer a whole lot of kid-friendly fun.
Meanwhile my father grew up, the son of an alcoholic – well… we won’t even go there and all that mess. Needless to say his father was not especially proud of his son who couldn’t even see correctly.
So when my dad and mom married, they instantly created a bond that could not be broken. They started out well, both with good jobs. They rented a house and then bought some property to build a new house.
But after several years of marriage, they made the decision to sell everything and go to Bible school. And everyone encouraged them. And everyone thought they were crazy. After all, Dad couldn’t see, nor did he have any training in ministry. They started at National Bible Institute in New York City and then when several professors decided to transfer to Moody, they did too.
(Somewhere along here, my New York City born and bred parents said they would never move back to Illinois. I believe that statement was made at their Moody senior retreat which was at the Methodist campgrounds in Des Plaines – a place so close to where my brother and I grew up, we could walk to it.)
Anyhow – back to the story. So Dad graduated and needed to find a place to serve. A little church in upstate New York (affiliated with a faith-supported mission) had an opening and that’s where they went.
Mt. Morris is a small village of about 4,000 people. My parents (faith-supported) were told that they could live in a large victorian house next to the church. But when they got there, they found out the house was a false promise. Someone else had moved into the house and their “home” would be a small room in back of the choir loft.
And that’s where they lived. They had no phone. They had no car. Actually, my dad couldn’t drive because of his eyes and Mom didn’t get her license until several years later when we lived in Pennsylvania. I remember because I used to go to her lessons with her.
And they had no money. Zilch. Nothing. Just an occasional few dollars someone would contribute to their ministry.
But they had stories …
*Dad learned a lot about the ministry. He struggled and got discouraged and didn’t always understand people but this formed the basis of his ministry philosophy and was a learning experience for his later successful pastorates.
*Dad started writing. One of the ladies in the church had MS. Dad wrote her a letter about receiving a glorified body in heaven, a body without sickness or pain. The letter meant so much to her that she encouraged him to send it to a Sunday school paper for publication. They liked it and sent him $5.00. My parents were amazed! Dad had no idea he could get money for his writing.
They proceeded to get every writing book they could find and Mom read them all to dad. (At this time she was pregnant with me and family legend has it that’s why I’m a writer – because I had all that training before I even made an appearance.)
But in fact, that started a writing career for dad that included hundreds of articles and short stories and more than 40 books. A love of words that was passed down to my brother and me who are also both writers and has also passed down to a third \ and maybe a fourth generation.
*They became parents. My first home was in that room back of the choir loft. Mom says that on Sunday mornings, she’d have to hurry to the church kitchen to get breakfast and clean up before the people showed up.
This is also where I got the whooping cough. Whooping cough was going around that year, by my doctor said he would give me my immunization when he got back from his Florida vacation “because babies don’t get whooping cough.” Well, I did. I stopped breathing and my dad thought I was dead. He picked me up and headed next door to use the phone to call whoever he was planning to call – and my dad’s jostling me as he ran started me breathing again. To this day I have trouble with colds settling into an unending cough.
No, my parents didn’t live in Mount Morris all that long – but it’s where their ministry started, where their writing career started and where they became parents. (And where we actually lived behind the choir loft in a small, village church.)
My mother died two weeks ago today.
I was scheduled to speak at a conference last weekend – in Rochester, New York. So two days after her memorial service (and a day early for the conference), I flew to Rochester and drove down to East Aurora. I stayed overnight and then the next morning meandered over to Mount Morris. I think I was back once since I was born – when I was four or five, but my only memory is playing with some kids who had a slinky.
I parked the car and walked the streets, imagining my mom pushing me in the baby carriage. I an guessing the town hasn’t changed that much. Downtown (well, just a few blocks away from the church) I stopped at a grille and ate lunch at the counter, watching the people walk by outside. Imagining.
I walked around the church, hoping to see someone who would invite me in, but that didn’t happen. I pictured my dad and mom standing on the lawn, holding their newborn baby. I wondered what windows looked out of the room where we lived. (Putting my outside tour of the church together with pictures, I think there’s now an addition.)
Soon I got back in the car and headed for Warsaw – the place where the hospital is located. My first surprise was that Warsaw is called the “village in the valley.” I had no idea that Warsaw was surrounded by hills. The town was not at all like I pictured. I followed the blue and white “H” signs and found the hospital on the side of another hill. I went inside and asked the lady at the desk if this was the original site. She said it was (and looked as if she could’ve been the receptionist when I was born) so I trusted her.
I then headed up to Batavia, New York which is not only where my conference was held, but also where my mom and I stayed with some friends the first couple weeks after I was born (so she didn’t have to bring a newborn home to a room in a church).
I would call the trip to Mt. Morris/Warsaw nostalgic – except I have no memories. In my own way, I was honoring my parents and their history … their humble start in ministry, their first months as parents, the first words of thousands … millions written by our family
And I thanked the Lord for my Dad and Mom … and the godly heritage they have given me.
Oh, I’m not the only preacher’s kid born there – Frances Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance also lived in Mount Morris as a baby.