ST. PETERSBURG — The twins settle in their seats at the church hall with cake doughnuts, coffee and three creamers apiece. Norma wanders off to chat, as usual, and Edy looks for her, as usual.
“Where’s my sister?” Edy says.
Norma returns and tweaks Edy’s downy hair, fluffing it back to the heavens. They are dressed the same — navy blue sweaters, Peter Pan collars, cravats, quilted jackets. OK, fine. They did it because we were coming from the newspaper. They don’t always dress alike, but it’s one of those identical twin things.
They are Norma Matthews and Edith “Edy” Antoncecchi — not “Edie” because of the word “die.” They turned 100 on Dec. 23. Fifty people flew to St. Petersburg for their party. Norma’s granddaughter submitted their picture to the Today show Smuckers birthday jar.
They missed the segment, but then, they’re usually too busy for TV. They live together, independently, in a mobile home. Helpers drive them around. Every Thursday, they come here to Northside Baptist for live music. It’s not their regular church, but all are welcome at the Golden Heirs senior club. In this room, the twins are stars.
They don’t entirely understand the fuss, the awe their presence evokes. In a world of impermanence, it is stunning to see people who grew up with gas lamps and milkmen, who have watched an entire world change. To see them together, still.
Norma is spry and Edy is reserved. Some of that is health, some is just how they are. Today there are guest speakers and a Christian musical family act, but first, the club leader lobs a few innocent jokes. Norma knows the order of events by heart.
“You’re going to do your jokes already?” Norma calls from her seat.
Edy laughs. She taps the table, and without a word, her sister cleans up the creamer packs and doughnut crumbs.
The twins were born outside Boston to Italian immigrants. Their parents danced to the Victrola, which got labor going. Edy arrived before the doctor. You’re too late, they told him. He examined the mother. “I’ll be here for the second one,” he told the stunned parents.
They shared a room with a big brass bed. Norma was an artist and Edy played piano. Norma loved fancy fashions and Edy chose understatement. They had their spats, of course. “You put a penny in your pocket, it doesn’t jingle,” their grandmother told them. “You put two pennies in your pocket, they jingle.”
A close friend looked like Rita Hayworth, Norma says, so no one paid the twins attention. Their family disputes this and says they were beautiful, too. They weren’t allowed to date, anyway. Boys had to ask their father for permission to walk them around the block.
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The twins got married the same year, Norma to Charles and Edy to Chick. They were planning a joint wedding, but Norma was marrying a Protestant and the priest was going to relegate them to the rectory, and only bad girls got married in the rectory. Edy married on Valentine’s Day with Norma as maid of honor. Norma married that May, but Edy had an appendix attack, so Rita Hayworth stepped in.
They never lived more than two cities apart and visited often by bus or train. Norma, a hairdresser, wore clothes like a movie star and gave her daughter perms. Edy, a nurse, was a gentle, natural caretaker. The sisters possessed an almost eerie awareness of each other. Edy could feel when Norma was sick. Norma would think, “I need to call Edy,” and the phone would ring.
They had their first child the same year. Norma had three children and lost one very young in 1948. Edy had two children and lost one several years ago.
They played the organ, put on puppet shows and hosted sprawling holiday affairs. They loved to perform Sisters from White Christmas. They changed with the times and grew deeply religious.
After 51 years of marriage, their husbands died months apart, Charles of Alzheimer’s and Chick in a car accident. In this low time, the lowest of low, the twins picked each other up and headed south.
They moved to Florida, into the same mobile home park. Eventually, they moved into the same mobile home.
Edy listens to the singers. Her mind is somewhere else, the corners of her eyes wet. She performs sign language to a hallelujah chorus. Norma roots through her purse and slips a penny across the table to me. It has a punched-out cross.
“I’ll think of you when I look at it,” I tell her.
“You’re supposed to think of the Lord,” she says.
The twins attribute their longevity to Jesus, the work of winning souls, and each other. Edy needs Norma. Norma can’t go first. Norma doesn’t have much control over that, she says, but agrees with the sentiment.
“We couldn’t be without each other,” Norma says.
“We came together,” Edy says, “we go together.”
We get to talking about what matters most. Norma has thought about this.
Loving people is the most important thing, Norma says. No, actually, forgiveness is. And it’s the hardest thing. But if you don’t forgive, it will eat your soul. That’s what she wants people to know.
A friend offers to drive to lunch, and Norma is back in the purse producing a coupon for PoFolks. The twins amble to the exit together, grasp each other’s hands and leave through a single door.
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About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at email@example.com.