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Avon Calling
By Elizabeth Reynolds

As a nine-year-old girl growing up in suburban Thousand Oaks, California, I would regularly accompany my mother to her friends' homes. This was not a pleasant experience. Not because I would be outside playing and get hurt. Not because there were other kids around that were bullies, but usually because at this very impressionable age, when I went to visit my mother's "friends," I inevitably got stuck being a second-hand listener to Mom's life story, and continually heard about the great loss she'd suffered, in more ways than one.

Mom's "friends," I should clarify, were actually the new "lady-friend-client-persons" that had ordered cosmetics from her. My mother, a tall striking woman with beautiful auburn hair and luminous skin, was an Avon Lady. And yes, she really did ring doorbells and call out, "Ding-Dong! Avon calling!"

Whenever my mother sold something, the woman who bought the products would then become her new best friend for a period of the three weeks it took from order to delivery. When my mother was invited into her new lady-friend-client-person's home at delivery time, I was usually trailing behind her jingling from the jewelry she placed on me -- her walking model and product presenter -- and sneezing from the strong stench that emanated from the packages, which contained orders of "Sweet Honesty," "Rapture," or "Imari" colognes -- the Eau de la Odor in decorator bottles -- a definite Avon collector's keepsake.

Mom always wanted the client to see what great jewelry was coming out in the next Avon campaign so I would enter wearing strands of multi-colored pearls, a sweet violet convertible pin which, when opened, cleverly contained blossoming cherry lip balm, and in my pony tail, a matching cherry blossom hair clip.

While Mother and her new lady-friend-client-person would sit on the couch and talk, I was de-jeweled carefully by my mother so as not to break any of the pieces I was modeling. She then placed me on the floor at a nearby coffee table with pens and paper, where I would draw and write something that I thought was going to be the next great Broadway Opera.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that Opera was the thing that was done on Broadway, but the sketched-out scenes and plots I'd make up were always very elaborate and ornate. On one of these deliveries, I was particularly proud of a Broadway Opera I'd created. Well, until the end of a visit on one particularly hot summer's day.

Usually, after about twenty minutes of actual Avon chatter, it was inevitable that each soon-to-be-forgotten lady-friend-client-person would ask my mother if I was her only child, or if she had any other children that weren't with her that day. Mom's answer was always the same: "Ahh ha ha heh he, oh…no, nooo one is QUITE enough."

She then would take a deep breath, and almost as though she was whispering a secret say,
"Well, it had to be enough to tell you the truth. I had my daughter at forty, and the doctor told me it would be too dangerous to have any more."

There was always the predictable gasp from her listener, and the typical reply: "Oh my god! Really? You don't look a day over thirty!"

To which Mom smoothly replied, "Ohhh thank you…it's the Avon!" and then follow it with, "I also worked for many years in the entertainment industry and I learned how to stay young that way too!"

Her listener, having become thoroughly intrigued, would ask her to elaborate. My mother MUST share some of her experiences. Had they seen her in anything? Who did she work with? What was it like being an actress? And like clockwork, as the queries fell from the freshly-glossed lips of Mom's latest lady-friend-client-person, my stomach would get tight and my nose would inevitably start to bleed out of nowhere.

Mom, apologizing profusely for her leaky child, was calmed by her hostess who placed me on a nearby couch with a box of tissues and a wastepaper basket, then continued to encourage my grateful mother to share her story. As I held my nose tightly in this stranger's house, I listened along with Mom's captive audience for the next hour while she relived her hard-earned glory days as an actress in Hollywood during the '50s and '60s.

Her story always started off the same -- how she came to Los Angeles from Ohio with her mother, father, and brother in 1952 after a raging flood washed everything away. How she started out as a chorus girl at various clubs around Los Angeles working with this actor or that actor before they really hit it big.

Then the story about having been invited to be one of "Frank's girls" for one of the many Vegas gigs at the Sands Hotel and Casino where the Rat Pack was performing. Then the story always included her huge crush, and three dates with Joey Bishop, and how "It just wasn't going to work out," as well as her brush with political pundits, and her closer-than-close call of being signed to a studio contract in 1959 by Cecil B. De Mille himself. But then how that had gone south when Cecil did. My mother returned to the stage and worked at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles with Liberace, and then won the first ever -- and only -- "Miss Los Angeles Fire Department." At nine years old, I wondered if she had to know how to slide down the pole to win that title.

After she shared about being the LA Fire Queen, Mom continued on to explain how she then broke into movies and television. She spoke of her gig as one of the harem girls in Son of Sinbad starring Vincent Price, and then about how in 1965, she was severely injured in a film because of the real life astronaut suit the producers made her wear as a costume. It was for a sci-fi "B" thriller called The Wizard of Mars. And yes, she played Dorothy. The film starred Roger Gentry, John Carradine, Vic McGee, and my mother, Eve Bernhardt. It has since been re-titled Horrors of the Red Planet, known to many "B" film buffs.

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