Mary Lems, left, and her twin sister Nell de Graaf, pictured in the same pose taken by a photographer 50 years ago when they ar
Mary Lems, left, and her twin sister Nell de Graaf, pictured in the same pose taken by a photographer 50 years ago when they ar

Double dutch

By Luis Feliu

IDENTICAL twins Nell de Graaf and Mary Lems of Currumbin, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their arrival in Australia on July 14, are sometimes hard to tell apart - especially when they both teach at the same college.

The two women, who arrived as 22-year-old migrants from Holland in 1955, are volunteer teachers of craft at the University of the Third Age (U3A) at Coolangatta's Showcase on the Beach.

"It's still very confusing for some, especially when we're both in the same class. Some of the girls will ask me something and I have to tell them 'Sorry I can't help you' - it happens all the time," Mrs Lems said.

Mrs Lems, a founding member of the U3A 14 years ago, and Mrs de Graaf who joined her at the college 10 years ago, say they have been somewhat inseparable all their lives - from their looks to where they lived and worked and even their pregnancies which were usually around the same time.

Mrs de Graaf, from Currumbin Valley, and Mrs Lems, from Currumbin Waters, both moved to the Gold Coast in the early 1990s from Sydney where they had settled down after arriving, married and had children.

"The first year was terrible, we didn't speak English," Mrs de Graaf said.

"Because of the language, we were too scared to work in an office so we worked in the old Sweetacre (confectionery) factory - we learnt the language there," Mrs Lems said.

Australian culture, they said, had changed "for the better" since those early days.

"At barbecues, the girls were on one side and the boys on the other side with the keg," Mrs de Graaf said.

Ironically the barbecue they're planning for their 50th-anniversary celebration at home with family will be "a real Aussie" one with sausages and tomato sauce and coleslaw as was the trend in the 1950s - minus the gender segregation, of course.

Mrs de Graaf's husband Gerry said that when the twins arrived in Fremantle on a Dutch ship in 1955, a photo of them putting on their lipstick together was published in a newspaper - which led to a coincidental episode 20 years later.

At Forestville Public School, Sydney, in 1974, 11-year-old cousins Robert de Graaf (Mrs de Graaf's son) and Jennifer Lems (Mrs Lems' daughter) were in the same class when the teacher read from a book called Lottie and Lisa, a story of twins.

At the back of the book, Mr de Graaf said, was a picture with a caption asking students to write a story about this set of twins.

"The cousins looked at each other because it was a picture of their mums when they arrived so they told their teacher they could write a book on each of them," he said.

"The kids took a paper clipping to school the next day and the teacher contacted the Manly Daily so it became a story that ultimately also got in to the press in Holland," he said.

Mrs de Graaf said that at the time, when she learnt of the remarkable coincidence, she "wanted to pinch that book but I was too honest".

Mrs de Graaf, a mother of four (two of which are also twins) and a grandmother of nine, and Mrs Lems, who has two children and three granddaughters, both said their children "are like brothers and sisters - and we're like their two mums".

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