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Enduring Friendships: Look-alike twins share everything

Thursday, July 25th, 2013 | Posted by

Jane Sullivan, left, and her twin sister Mary McDermott hold a photo of themselves at age 18 taken by famous San Francisco photographer Romaine. The women were once a skating pair with the Ice Follies. (Scott Manchester / For the Press Democrat)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

When it comes to friendships, there’s an unspoken rule shared by identical twins Mary McDermott and Jane Sullivan.

“Love me, love my sister,” says McDermott.  “They have to take both of us,” adds Sullivan.

At 89, the twins speak from experience. Nearly inseparable, they’ve always enjoyed the company of others, but with a double deal. Someone can’t befriend one sister without eventually befriending the other.

“I can’t think of anybody that’s just my friend,” says Sullivan. “They might like you better,” she teases her sister, “but they have to accept both of us.”

The women laugh at the notion that someone could find one charming without developing an identical fondness for the other. After all, they’re far more alike than not, physically and otherwise.

Petite, fit and trim, they play nine holes of golf each week at Oakmont with Sonoma Swingers, a longtime women’s golf league comprised of their friends and known more for camaraderie than competition.

Golfers can spot the twins from afar – they’re always dressed in identical outfits, both on the course and off. The women coordinate their wardrobes every day, just as they’ve done since they were little girls.

“Right or wrong, we’ve always dressed alike,” says Sullivan.

Some people have suggested they’re seeking attention with their matching attire, others have commented they’re “too old” for identical outfits. Wrong, say the twins.

“It’s been our life, part of our life. It’s natural to Mary and I to dress alike,” says Sullivan.

“It’s not natural to not dress alike,” says McDermott.

The women share the same taste in fashion and wear the same dress size, with Sullivan’s size 5 shoe just a half-size smaller than her sister’s. They overlook bold patterns, bright colors and stripes, saying it’s just too much in duplicate.

Even their short hairdos are coiffed by the same hairstylist, making them identical literally from head to toe.

Born in Minneapolis, the twins’ lives have run a parallel course: they moved to Southern California in their teens, graduated from a private high school in Long Beach with the Class of 1941 and then joined the Ice Follies as a pair of principal skaters doing lifts and spins and fancy footwork in perfect symmetry.

They traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada with the Ice Follies for six years, a time they recall with vivid fondness.

“Every year we had different themes and a different set of costumes, always in matching costumes,” says McDermott. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Sullivan even fancied a young skater who was a part of the Follies – a man who would become her husband.  While dating Sullivan, he introduced her sister to a close buddy of his – the man who would become McDermott’s husband.

The men were school friends and native San Franciscans. Both were named Joe.

The two Joes and their brides were married in1946 in a double-ring ceremony at St. Thomas Apostle Catholic Church in San Francisco. After exchanging vows, the two couples took a joint honeymoon to Los Angeles.

Although married to identical twins, the men were different from one another in build, personalities and “lives,” the women say. Joe McDermott served with the Marine Corps 1st Division, Joe Sullivan was with the Air Force.

“We both married very congenial men,” says McDermott. “They had to be.”

Throughout their marriages, the similarities continued. Each sister had two children and spent about 20 years teaching ice skating while raising their families in San Francisco.

After consulting with one another, both couples moved to warm and sunny Sonoma Valley in 1986, first the Sullivans and then the McDermotts six months later.

“That’s the only time we’ve really been separated,” Sullivan says.

Today the sisters live barely 10 minutes apart, Sullivan in Sonoma city limits and McDermott in El Verano. Both are grandmothers and both are widowed. They drive to one another’s homes to visit and also catch up by phone with their only other sibling, their 92-year-old sister Ardria who lives in Idaho.

The twins have dinner together regularly, knit, work on jigsaw puzzles and sometimes watch televised sports together – a legacy of their husbands’. Their families get together as well, with the sisters always finding time for one another at every holiday. Each sister is the godmother of one another’s oldest child.

“Generally we’re together,” McDermott says.

“We don’t always agree but we never fight,” says Sullivan.

“I don’t even think we disagree much,” says her twin.

The sisters may be the same in many ways – they vote in the same political party – but when it comes to the palate, they differ. Sullivan likes white wine while McDermott favors blush. McDermott enjoys chocolate; her sister finds it too sweet.

The women question whether they are simply sisters or best friends – or perhaps both. The lines are blurred but the loyalties are not.

Perhaps their biggest compliment to one another: they never correct someone when they’ve been mistaken for the other.

“I don’t even correct them if they call me Mary,” says Sullivan. And, says her sister, “I’m called Jane half the time.”

Their friendship is deep and enduring, tested by taking numerous vacations together with their late husbands. They have only the fondest of memories traveling together to Hawaii and throughout much of Europe.

McDermott, the older sister by 30 minutes, tends to be the leader.

“I can’t say she bosses me but I go along with her completely,” says Sullivan.

Her sister agrees that Sullivan is more of a follower “until she wants something and then she gets her way,” McDermott says. “She’s a little bit more competitive than I am and has a bit more of a temper than I do.”

Sullivan praises her sister’s giving personality. “She’s quite generous. Let’s say I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

The women look out for one another and worry about each other as well.

“I’ve come over in my pajamas at nighttime,” McDermott says of times when telephone calls to her sister went unanswered.

Without question, they are the very best of friends, the closest of sisters, matching bookends.

“Right away it’s ‘us’ or ‘we,’” says McDermott.  “It’s not ‘I’.”

  • Carolyn Yoder

    Mary and Jane are my darling Aunts. They truly bring joy to our family.
    Thanks for a great article.

    Carolyn Yoder
    Wichita Kansas

  • Louise Phillips

    I was so pleased to learn that my former ice-skating teachers are well and still very much together! Over the years I have often wondered what happened to “The Thomas Twins”, our faithful and most patient instructors at the 10th Avenue ice rink in San Francisco.
    Thank you so much for featuring Janie and Mary in Sunday’s paper.

  • dhart

    Thanks so much. Mary and Jane are inspiring to many of us. Meeting them was my pleasure entirely.

  • Nancy Sheldon Gershman

    Hello, am so happy to see you are both well and living in Sonoma. I live in Santa Rosa. I would love to see you. Please say hello to Mary Catherine for me. Best wishes, Nancy

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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