Ninety years ago, Amelia and Mary Pizzo spent their 10th birthday aboard a ship bound for Ellis Island.

Twins Mary Pizzo McCarthy, center left, and Amelia “Millie” Pizzo Lane, center right, appear with their mother, Gesamine Pizzo, and their brothers Alfonso, left, and Joseph in a photo taken in Italy before the family immigrated to Portland in 1929. Family photo

On Wednesday, the identical twins spent the afternoon with close family members, celebrating their 100th birthday together. They shared pizza and cake, and reminisced over photo albums and obituaries clipped from newspapers through the years.

Though alike in many ways, the petite centenarians have individual tastes and fiery spirits that have sustained them for decades. While Amelia “Millie” Pizzo Lane drinks tea and enjoys a daily can of Pepsi, Mary Pizzo McCarthy prefers coffee and drinks a glass of red wine each day.

“I really think my wine is keeping me alive,” Mary joked during the gathering at her Portland home. “My father made wine. I was brought up on it.”

The twins were born May 15, 1919, in Carpinone, Italy, an ancient hilltop village about 100 miles south of Rome. Millie was born first, with some encouragement from Mary.

“I always say she pushed me,” Millie said of her slightly younger sister. “We were born at home. They didn’t know there was another one until after I was born.”

The sisters remember picking fruit from cherry, pear and fig trees that grew throughout the village, and washing clothes on the banks of the Carpino River.

“My mother would send us down with a bar of yellow soap and we used a big rock as a washboard,” Millie recalled. “Those were the good old days.”

Their mother, Gesamine, was a seamstress, and they had two older brothers, Alfonso and Joseph. Their father, Martine, was 4,000 miles away in Maine, building a life where he hoped to bring his family one day.

Mary McCarthy, left, and Amelia “Millie” Lane mark their 100th birthday Wednesday at Mary’s home in Portland. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

Martine Pizzo had fought with the Americans in World War I, so after the war he headed to the United States.

“He was sponsored by a family in Portland that was from Carpinone,” said Rick Allen, Millie’s oldest son, who lives in Atlanta. “A year later, he bought a house on Taft Avenue, built a hothouse and started a pansy farm.”

By 1929, Martine Pizzo had saved enough to bring his family to Portland. Fresh off the boat in New York City, Millie Pizzo expected to see streets paved with gold.

“Where’s the gold?” she asked her mother in Italian.

Mary Pizzo McCarthy, left, and Amelia “Millie” Pizzo Lane in a photo taken in 1929 in Portland, on the day the family arrived. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

“It must be on other streets,” her mother responded.

A black-and-white photo shows the twins on the day they arrived in Portland. They stand beside a fenced garden, arms over each other’s shoulders, wearing matching dresses and Mary Jane shoes. Their dark hair is bobbed and flipped into stylish curls.

“We didn’t speak any English,” Mary recalled. “We were 10 years old and we were put in first grade.”

The girls and their brothers worked on the pansy farm. In their spare time, they did what other kids did. A photo from 1934 shows the two girls as teenage bathing beauties on Peaks Island, arms around each other’s waists.

Soon after, the twins graduated from Lincoln Junior High School. But while both girls finished eighth grade, only Mary went on to high school.

“The family couldn’t afford to send both girls to high school, so Millie went to work and Mary went to Deering High School,” said Patricia Lane, Millie’s daughter, who lives in South Portland.

Mary graduated in 1939, skipping two years of high school and earning an A in English in her final year, she said. Millie went to work at the New System Laundry, folding sheets and other linens as they came out of an automated ironing machine.

Mary, left, and Amelia “Millie” Pizzo pose for a photo on Peaks Island in 1934. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

Millie also worked as a sales clerk at the W.T. Grant Co. dime store on Congress Street, then later worked at the Jordan’s Meats plant, where she operated an automatic slicing machine that processed 7,000 pounds of bologna, salami and other cold cuts every day.

Mary worked as a dressmaker after high school, then as a waitress at the Puritan Tea Room and later at the Sportsman’s Grill, both on Congress Street.

“Let me tell you something, the Sportsman’s Grill was second to none,” said Mary, who retired from the restaurant after 20 years when she was 74.

Through the years, each woman married. Millie had three children and two grandchildren. Mary had one child, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mary’s daughter, Judy Stanhope, and her granddaughter, Jodi Stailing, live nearby and watch over her.

“Thank God I’ve got my daughter and my granddaughter,” Mary said.

Mary Pizzo McCarthy, right, and Amelia “Millie” Pizzo Lane look at old photo albums together while celebrating their 100th birthday Wednesday at Mary’s home in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Millie lived on her own until she was 98. In March 2018, pneumonia put her on a breathing machine in Maine Medical Center for weeks. Doctors didn’t expect her to survive, but she bounced back and now lives in a Portland nursing home.

Millie credits her recovery to friends at the First Assembly of God Church on Cumberland Avenue in Portland.

“They prayed around the clock for me,” Millie said. “I came around and here I am.”

As for the secret to their longevity, the twins claim no special effort or gift, although their mother and father lived to be 89 and 91, respectively. Mary smoked a pack of cigarettes a day until she was 99 and Millie smoked when she was younger. Family members hope their tenacity is genetic.

“Your health is your wealth,” Millie said.

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