Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nancy Neff, In Loving Memory: 1951 - 2012

My beloved aunt, Nancy Neff, passed away on Sunday. This is an extended version of what I read today at her funeral. Please read her obituary, which only hints at her extraordinary life and work, here. I hope this is the first of many pieces where I write about my love for her.

I began calling my aunt Nancy Neff “Sis” when I was very young, and I think I only stopped doing that the past few years out of embarrassment, or something. I sure wish I had kept calling her that, though, because it was a form of affection that seemed appropriate given my lifelong closeness to her. I have such strong memories of spending the night over at her house when I was very young, oftentimes having sleepovers there with Nancy, or walking her dogs with her on a weekend afternoon. I’m an only child, and I suppose she was a kind of sister, in a way – the creative, funny aunt who I rushed to sit next to at any family function.

I spent many days with Nancy at her office at the University of Texas, taking trips to the LBJ Library with her, and it became clear early on what a brilliant journalist and writer she was. In fact, I used to send movie reviews, as I recall, to Nancy every once and a while, and she came up with the idea to set up an interview for me at the West Austin News, to see if they’d be interested in hiring an eleven year-old film critic. And she was entirely responsible for me getting that job, really. She was there with me at the interview.

She was unique in so many ways. Her artistry with making pins, some of which are going to be on display later at the reception and which were sold all around Austin in various stores, inspired me to start making my own pins and laminated magnets, a bunch of which are still on her refrigerator at her house, along with many of my drawings – of Sis with her two dogs Skeeter and Biscuit, who have also passed on now (the past few years, her dogs Forrest and Tag have given her so much joy); of the New York City skyline, where I had been with her and my family many times; and many others.

To say that she encouraged my engagement with the arts would be an understatement. You only have to walk through her beautiful West Austin house and observe the framed posters of Broadway plays, the incredible paintings and pieces of folk art, the spinning racks of New Yorker magazines, the organized collection of films and CDs that numbers well into the thousands, to get a sense of how she influenced me. As a child, that house was my playground. Walking into it now, I feel an overwhelming sadness, knowing that it will have to go.

Like many memories in my life, some of my strongest memories of Nancy are tied to trips out to the theater. She introduced me to more Broadway musicals than I can recall, and she took me to see countless movies over the years. I remember we saw Mars Attacks (1996) in theaters – we both laughed hysterically throughout that one. Yikes! says Jack Nicholson, as the aliens start attacking. They’re scattered throughout my memory – Christmas Eve of 1998, Nancy, my mom and I went to see You’ve Got Mail. She also snuck me into the last thirty minutes of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) after we saw another movie – she knew how much I wanted to see that picture, and against the wishes of my parents, she took me into the theater to watch the end of the movie. My mom and dad were not happy about that.

I frequently borrowed her VHS tapes to watch at home – she was directly responsible for convincing my mom that I needed to see The Godfather when I was ten (I remember the three of us had a discussion about it at Rudy’s Bar-BBQ), and boy, was she right. And then a few months later after watching The Godfather (1972), she lent me her VHS of The Godfather Part II (1974). Of course, long discussions about both films ensued immediately after watching them.

At some point, it became clear to me that Nancy was of a different political persuasion than most of the others in the Neff family. Nancy was a lifelong, very passionate supporter of the Democratic party, and if she was outspoken about it, it was only because she was outnumbered in her family. So she was very happy when I joined the club at some point during my high school years. I think she was always proud to know that she had a fellow Democrat in the family. And, you know, I can only hope that, this November, a member of the Neff family is willing to give their vote to the Democratic candidate for president as a way of honoring Nancy and making sure she gets a vote, because God knows nothing would please her more.

For years, she’s been exactly like my mom and grandma – someone I could call and talk to over the phone for hours at a time – about the arts, politics, my experiences at school, the most recent film purchases she had made. There are very few people in my life who have been so invested and so interested in everything I do, from the books I wrote as a child, to the plays in which I performed in high school, to my time at New York University and my experiences there.

There aren’t many people left on my mom’s side of the family. She, Nancy and John lost both of their parents many years ago, and now there’s really just my uncle John and my mom Gretchen left to survive the original Neff family, and that makes me very sad. I know there’s comfort to be found in imagining that Nancy, and her mother and father, Jack and Lou Neff – as well as my father John – are all together up above watching down on us, and perhaps one day we’ll join them again. But I encourage those of you who knew her and grew up with her to sift through those old boxes of pictures from the past, any letters of correspondence you had with her, any articles she wrote, and display them proudly. Because right now, that’s what we have left of her, our memories and those pictures, pins, articles, letters, awards – and I believe in preserving that.

After my dad passed away ten years ago, I assumed that I had experienced my share of loss – surely the other people who love me will always be here. The thought that Nancy would someday not be a part of my life had never crossed my mind. If I had known that I would never see my aunt again, oh, the things I would have said, the time I would have spent. To quote The Godfather, “There just wasn’t enough time.” Goodbye, Sis. I love you.

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