Neighborhood stories: Next door’s nonfiction

Betty Nef­fer­dorf, who lived on Mer­cer Street, leaves a leg­acy of her own in Fishtown. 

  • The Mercer Street home now, after Betty passed away and the home was cleared of her signature decor. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

  • Betty Nefferdorf, known on the block as “Betty Neff.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Betty Nefferdorf’s home before she passed away, which was always decorated extensively depending on the season. Her daughter called the home “Disneyland.”

The house across the street from mine had a story to tell.

Be­fore I moved to Fishtown and was look­ing at home rent­al list­ings on­line, I searched for what would be­come my cur­rent house on Google Street View. I zoomed around the whole street, check­ing out what the block looked like, and stopped at the im­age of the house across the street. The squat two-story, with a gated front patio and porch, was pos­it­ively ex­plod­ing with per­son­al­ity. 

The house it­self looked like a fire­work — it was burst­ing with glit­ter, with red, white and blues in every con­ceiv­able dec­or­at­ive piece, with bright bunt­ing, with a massive blue “Sup­port Our Troops” ban­ner. It was the very op­pos­ite of subtle. Some might call it too much, or even a little tacky.

It made me smile. 

When I did move in to my house on Mer­cer Street, the house was still dec­or­ated with the same red, white and blue. But I could see then, in per­son, that the dec­or­a­tions wer­en’t ex­actly cur­rent—they were faded, over­grown, clearly rel­ics from a pat­ri­ot­ic ob­serv­ance long ago.

I wondered about the per­son who lived there, if any­one, as I nev­er saw any­one come in or out, or any lights on. It wasn’t un­til an­oth­er neigh­bor told me that an older lady lived there for many years, un­til she fell very ill and moved in with her daugh­ter, who lived around the corner. 

Weeks ago, some men spent a couple days tak­ing away all the dec­or­a­tions. She had passed away, on Nov. 11. The house, now, looks empty. All those trinkets, for which there was clearly so much pride, were the last vestige of a life I nev­er knew any­thing about, and wish I had. Now, they went in­to the trash.

The lady was Betty Nef­fer­dorf. Known on the block as “Betty Neff,” she had moved in­to the house in June of 1976, with her hus­band and her daugh­ter, Car­olee — Car­ol — Sweeney, who now lives on Dauph­in Street. Betty died at the age of 85.

Some­times, it feels we have no con­nec­tion to the people liv­ing only feet away from us. Every home, every per­son, has a story. Betty, I think, was in­vit­ing the world in­to her life a bit with those dec­or­a­tions. They wer­en’t the work of a private per­son.

Car­ol, when I ar­ranged a meet­ing with her, as­sured me that was true of her moth­er, who Car­ol said was al­ways on the go, walk­ing to and from every­where she went, gal­li­vant­ing with the Jolly Dol­lies wid­ows’ so­cial group, and keep­ing busy at every hour. 

“She’d tell me, ‘that dust can sit there ‘til to­mor­row, I’m go­ing out,” Car­ol said with a laugh. 

Betty was ad­op­ted as a child, and was born and raised in At­lantic City, where she sold pony rides on the beach as a young girl. Betty’s hus­band, Car­ol’s fath­er, passed away in 1978. Un­til 1980 when Car­ol got mar­ried, she and her moth­er lived to­geth­er in the Mer­cer Street house. For 30 years, Betty was a cook at the former St. Mary’s Hos­pit­al in Fishtown.

Betty had six chil­dren, 16 grand­chil­dren and 22 great-grand­chil­dren. She loved Elvis, had dozens of pieces of his mem­or­ab­il­ia, and would some­times go to for­tun­e­tellers to try to fig­ure out where her sib­lings — two sis­ters and a broth­er — were.

Even­tu­ally, she found them, and re­united with them about ten years ago. 

“That was breath­tak­ing,” Car­ol said. “She found out that her older sis­ter had kept horses, too, and her young­est sis­ter was also a cook, at a school.”

The sis­ters later went on a cruise. Car­ol has a photo from their trip, of all three smil­ing while lean­ing against the rail of the ship — back to­geth­er after so many years apart.

The quirk­i­ness of Betty’s home was only matched by the quirk­i­ness of her life­style and fash­ion, Car­ol said. 

Betty would match her socks to her out­fits, as well as her ear­rings. As for the sig­na­ture dec­or­a­tions, it seemed she wanted them to simply pop up one day, without her neigh­bors see­ing the pro­cess.

“No one ever saw her put­ting them up,” Car­ol said. “She must have gone out there at four in the morn­ing to dec­or­ate.”

The house, Car­ol said, she called “Dis­ney­land.” 

Betty had can­cer, and even­tu­ally moved in­to Car­ol’s house when her ill­ness was at its peak. Even while sick, Car­ol said, her moth­er was spir­ited and stub­born.

“She said, ‘I’ve had a good life, I don’t want no treat­ment,’” Car­ol said. “She was very tough. She en­dured a lot in her life. Strong willed — that’s what she taught us all.”

Re­call­ing, Car­ol then paused. 

“She was my best friend.”

Be­fore even meet­ing Car­ol, I feel like I knew a little about Betty without even know­ing her. 

She wanted to bring beauty, charm and a little fun to her block, in her own spe­cial way. She wanted people who lived near her to know that she loved Christ­mas, or Amer­ica, or fall and Hal­loween. She didn’t want to keep her­self from her neigh­bors. She wanted people to have something to look at, to ask her about, or maybe just think about.

I’ve lived in four oth­er homes in the city, and I’d nev­er seen any­thing like what I saw at Betty’s. She’d nev­er know what her out­land­ish and un­apo­lo­get­ic house had done for me —it made me in­stantly fall in love the neigh­bor­hood I had moved in­to, where the people ap­pre­ci­ate a dis­play of pride, no mat­ter how over-the-top.

Betty brought the block per­son­al­ity.

Car­ol said her moth­er was the sort of wo­man who would give you the shirt off her back, but was at the same time a real tough cook­ie—you “couldn’t cross her.” I asked Car­ol what she thinks Betty Neff would have done if I knocked on her door and asked her to have cof­fee.

“She’d tell you to come on in, don’t mind the mess,” Car­ol said. “But she’d say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.”

If you would like to tell a story about your neigh­bor­hood, your block, or someone you know for Star’s “Neigh­bor­hood Stor­ies” series, email Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on at mjam­is­ 

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