by Debra M. Saxton
Catherine and Maryann Sampognaro are first generation Italian descendants born on the Monterey Peninsula in the area commonly known as “Spaghetti Hill’’ because of the numerous Italian families that have lived there. They are intelligent, vivacious, and most notably, identical twins.
When asked what Italian twins have that other twins don’t, they look at each other and silently agree who will respond first. “A big crazy family and lots of support (whether you need it or not),” pipes up Catherine, with a laugh. Both agree that their Italian heritage is important to them and that growing up in an Italian community had its pluses and minuses.
According to Catherine, Italian families have higher expectations than other families. There are more rules and fewer freedoms. On the other hand, the community provided them with a strong network of people and support.
Everyone knew each other very well in the small town atmosphere where they lived. Wherever they went there was always someone they recognized. No one in the community got away with anything, especially the kids. “It was almost claustrophobic,” quips Maryann. Even though it felt intrusive at times, the girls felt looked after and protected in their tight-knit community.
Like most Italians, the girls grew up Catholic. There was church every Sunday, Baptisms, Communions and Confirmations to attend. As part of their religious upbringing, they attended a private Catholic school through eighth grade. Maryann detested everything about school, whereas Catherine thrived on it. Maryann cherished fashion and scoffed at uniforms. She rebelled by tailoring her skirt length as short as possible without getting herself into trouble. Conversely, Catherine was partial to the structure the small school provided and enjoyed not having to figure out what to wear every day.
Their mother planned for the girls to continue with private schools as they transitioned to high school. The girls were determined to change her mind, regardless of the fact that Catherine harbored a desire to be a cheerleader, an activity of which her mother did not approve. Spurred on by her sisterand with forged permission slip in hand, Catherine tried out and won a spot on the cheerleading squad at Monterey High. After extensive lobbying for public school, both girls eventually won the transfer. They even attended game nights barring one set of rules: they were dropped off and picked up at the stadium by one of their brothers and there was no lounging or after-game noshing with friends.
This determination is typical of their approach to getting what they want. They learned early on to be self-sufficient and to work hard to achieve their goals.
Their quest for self-sufficiency began at a young age when they accompanied their mother to her gift shop job on Fisherman’s Wharf where they, too, were put to work. They earned ten cents for every box they put together and for dusting the store window displays. At the time, it was just a game for them. However, their hands, swathed in soot and layed in paper cuts, represented the effort they would put forth later in life. As adults, they realized they were given a foundation for business values and work ethics.
Their mother, for whom both sisters have the utmost respect, grew up during the Great Depression. Abandoned by her father, she followed her grandparents to America. Years after starting a family of her own, her husband died of multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer, when the twins were just two years old. Lacking a formal education, she did whatever it took to support her family. That she served as both mother and father to five children earned her daughters’ respect and admiration.
According to Maryann and Catherine, growing up with a twin is an intrinsically unique gift. There is unconditional love between them and they remain unguarded with one another. As sisters, each is the others’ most important person in their life. They consider themselves soul mates.
“Being a twin, you never feel like you are alone,” says Maryann. “We never felt the need for other companions as long as we had each other,” Catherine adds. Now that they live in different cities, they don’t have the immediate access they had when younger, but their bond still holds true. Never out of touch, they remain in contact with one another via a steady stream of daily phone calls, texts, and emails.
Just like being Italian, there are good and bad things about being a twin. Maryann and Catherine can communicate telepathically and often carry on private conversations from across a room. Both know when something is wrong with the other, be it illness or emotional distress. What is the downside to being twins? They share almost everything. And that includes the bruises that showed up on Maryann when Catherine got her immunizations to travel overseas.
Catherine and Maryann may be identical, but they both have individual personalities. One is outgoing, the other reserved. One is trusting, the other is more guarded. One drives a BMW, the other a Mercedes. One is studious, the other more carefree. Catherine looks at her twin and says, “If we were one person, we’d be perfect. Her strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa.”
Being without their twin would be a weakness for both. When asked what they absolutely could not do without their twin, both responded: “Get through life.” That unwavering devotion to each other is their unequivocal bond. And, whether celebrating life’s successes or toils, the first person each turns to is the other.