Neighborhood stories: Next door’s nonfiction

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

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 mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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.”