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Big Scary Penguins & Powdered Sugar Donuts

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Harness walks, a cute puppy and first-grade penguins....



Don’t get me wrong. I have some very fond childhood memories. How could I not when I was so very spoiled by my Grandma Ada. She was not only very loving but also an amazing cook and caregiver. She just adored me. So did my great aunt Maria. She’d put me in a harness for our afternoon walks. Yes. A harness. I LOVED it! I could run and jump and feel secure knowing she was there. I know. Many people frown on harnesses for toddlers, likening it to a dog on a leash. I am here to tell you it was fun!

I enjoyed every minute of it. She would take me to Winchell’s Donuts on Santa Monica Blvd. where she'd buy me a powdered sugar cake donut. Boy were they good! I’d look up at a ledge that was just below the window where my aunt would order donuts in her almost non-existent English. She'd hand me the donut and say, 'Andiamo a casa', Maruzza. “Let’s go home little Mara”. Happy times. It still amazes my family that I remember this because according to them I was only 3 years old. But my memories of all this are very vivid.


And then there were the Sundays when my dad would come visit. Ahhh... they were awesome! He always brought me a little gift or chocolates.  His hugs and lullabies were the best. One year he surprised me with a white toy poodle. The puppy was so cute. I instantly fell in love. One morning I woke up and he was gone. I asked my nonna, my zia and my mother where he was. They told me he ran away. I was crushed. I cried all day eventually crying myself to sleep. I later found out that they had given him away because I was too young to take care of him. My family didn’t want the bother or responsibility. I’m sure that must have made my Dad very sad too. He knew how happy that puppy had made me.


We had a very sweet neighbor named Mrs. Brown who made the most delicious sponge cake. Every time I knocked on her door she'd bring me a piece of her mouth-watering cake. She seemed to have a sense when I needed a special smile and some extra kindness. Food has always been a great comfort in our family. We're Italians after all.


I turned 6 on June 12th of 1962. That September I started my first day of school at St. Ambrose Elementary in Hollywood.  My mother and step-grandmother, Della, picked me up at my grandmother's and drove me to school. I was excited but scared. After all, I hadn’t gone to preschool or kindergarten and didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was the tender loving care I received from my grandmother and great aunt. I knew little or nothing of the world I lived in - the Hollywood lifestyle my father had – my mother’s film background and the excitement Los Angeles had in store for me.


We arrived at St. Ambrose school and it was time to walk in. My heart was pounding in my chest. I remember a long hallway and classrooms…and nuns dressed in austere black and white habits – they looked like big scary penguins. A nun by the name of Sr. Amata came to greet us. She stood about 5’2. She seemed HUGE to me.  I hid behind my mother, fiercely holding the back of her dress. "What was to be?" I wondered. After a few minutes of conversation, Sr. Amata took my hand and walked me into a classroom filled with strange kids I'd never met. I sat at a desk and took a big gulp. 

Sr. Amata could be nice. She could also be very stern and mean. She had two paddles. The small one was called “Little Betsy”. The other paddle was twice as big and was called “Big Betsy”. Big Betsy was used to spank children that were REALLY misbehaving! I was threatened with “Little Betsy” a few times for talking in class. Thankfully, I was spared both Betsys that entire year.

I got used to school and quickly made friends. This first year was the start of an adventure of learning that would last a lifetime.


Until next time...




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