Teach My Feet To Fly

It’s the August doldrums, and I figure the nine of you who are still reading the blog can put up with something a little different.

You may remember several months ago I was waxing lyrical over a lost fragrance from my youth, a gift from my mother, and in my mind I’d pictured a classic like L’Air du Temps, only better. Then the name of the fragrance —Trailing Arbutus — came to me like a shot in the dark and I googled it immediately — and was so embarrassed by the Avon name staring me in the face that I resolved quietly to forget all about it.

Then Katie at Scentzilla did a post reminiscing about those Avon collectibles that folks of a certain age remember from our childhoods. We gave them to our moms, they gave them to us; the bottles were often novelty-shaped (shoes, animals, cars) and, let’s face it, filled with mediocre fragrance like Moonwind or Topaze. Or Trailing Arbutus. But Katie’s post got me contemplating buying a bottle on eBay. (If you have no idea what I’m yammering about, search “vintage Avon bottle” on eBay and sit back in awe.)

What does the 1979 Anniversary Keepsake Edition of Avon’s Trailing Arbutus conjure up? The precise smell of being fifteen and at loose ends, with a mother who was ill and losing her grip on reality, and also going blind, somewhat more slowly. The combination threw her into titanic rages, which we hid from as best we could. My father dealt by spending a lot of time at work. I dealt by hanging out in my room with the curtains drawn, staring at my unicorn posters and listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album over and over again, on the stereo, as she sang

I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby cry…

You go ahead and laugh, but I felt hope listening to Joni sing about various pains and joys and sadnesses, even the stuff I was too young to relate to — those mournful lyrics about hanging out in bars listening to jukeboxes and arguing with old lovers and whatnot. It’s still one of my favorite albums. Joni got me through.

So I bought the damn bottle. I found one in a box, unopened, hoping to minimize the age damage, but still, it wasn’t exactly Nombre Noir to begin with, was it? And now it’s almost 30 years old, so my expectations were pretty low. I thought I’d let that genie out of the bottle and see what happened.

It smelled perfect — the room, the dark green bedspread, the peeling wallpaper, the dust, the books, Joni on the stereo — the whole deal, in an instant — all the fear and hope and stillness, the waiting and the inchoate wanting — right there in one tall, beribboned bottle.

I can’t say if this really smells like trailing arbutus (i.e., May flower) because I’ve never smelled May flowers. Probably not. Objectively, this juice is crap; it smells more like hairspray than any real flower. But I don’t care. The record may be a little scratchy after all these years, but I can still hear Joni in the background.

top: eBay image of the bottle I bought

Joni Mitchell, Blue, lyrics from River: lyricsfreak.com

  • Azzurra says:

    Buon luogo, congratulazioni, il mio amico!

  • Musica latina says:


  • Outré says:

    Wow. There I was, looking for free flower stock photos and ran across a photo of Trailing Arbutus, which prompted me to search (yet again) for that perfume I ripped from mom to wear that summer before I turned 25 and gave up the pursuits of young adulthood (tequila, men, and dancing ’til the wee hours). Your page as in the list and I can’t believe there are other people “looking” for this for memories sake. Your post had a poignant effect on me, reminding me “why” I was pursuing men, tequila, and dancing all night. I hope you don’t mind becoming part of the memory that goes along with Trailing Arbutus from Avon. 🙂 btw, the men all seemed to l-o-v-e that scent over the more overpowering aromas women were wearing in the early ’80s.;)

  • Fulltilt says:

    Arbutus is one of the few flowers I can ever remember being mentioned in a Joni Mitchell song:

    I heard it on the wind last night
    it sounded like applause
    chilly now, end of summer, no more shiny hot nights
    It was just the arbutus rustling
    and the bumping of the logs
    and the moon swept down black water
    like an empty spotlight

    I still listen to Blue at least once a week.

  • Karen says:

    I’m sorry about your Mom. I’m math impaired, but even I was able to figure out that in 1979, I was a few years older than you (I guess I still am) and serving in the US Army in Germany. While there, I liked to wear 4711 eau de cologne. I liked the fact that I was living in Germany (ofcourse, back then, it was West Germany) and wearing a fragrance made in Germany. I bought it at the Post Exchange (PX) for a pittance. Then I discovered that my supervisor sold Avon and I bought Avon’s “version” of 4711. Can’t remember what they called it. It was probably available only in Germany. It was even cheaper than the original 4711 in the PX, even though I had to pay for it in Deutsch Marks and there was a lousy rate of exchange of DM vs American Dollars when I lived overseas (from 1978 – 1981). (When shopping, you paid American Dollars at the PX and Commissary. If shopping “on the economy” (that is, at a German shop,) you paid in Deutsch Marks.) So that’s my story about Avon fragrances. And my “flash from the past” circa 1979. Thanks for the memories! My, how the world has changed since then!

  • Katie says:

    😡 I love that bottle! I don’t remember that one at all. It’s perfectly adorable. Even the box is adorable, with that fun art nouveau scheme of colors and design. Ay! No wonder you were so happy to get your hands on it. The memories are wonderful, so the juice by default is wonderful, too, no matter what the actual smell.:)>-

  • marchlion says:

    Chaya — oh! I want a fragrance made from warm, sisterly embraces, naughty humor, strong coffee and black aoud — wouldn’t it smell divine?

  • marchlion says:

    Cheez — Anais Anais!!! That one is a flashback for me too… although I had the same experience you did, which makes me wonder if it’s been changed significantly. Many of my girlfriends wore it. I can think of a lot worse, you know?

  • marchlion says:

    Dusan — that is hilarious. Excellent description, I could hear the whole soundtrack in my mind.

    I like that cheap, macho hairy-chest stuff. I’m glad I didn’t have to drink it, though.

  • marchlion says:

    Elle — wow!!!! $300?!?!?! Glad I’m not jonesing for that one… but Coty had some amazing fragrances. If I were queen, they’d go back and reintroduce Chypre and their other finest fragrances, and there would be no more giggling over White Musk and whatever other dreck they’re flogging now…

  • chayaruchama says:

    Dearest Marchele-

    You made me weep.

    I understand what a painful, chaotic time that was for you.

    Our senses conjure up old ghosts- beloved,feared,detested, and intense longing…

    Those of us fortunate enough to transcend awaken strong, funny, and compassionate…

    [ask someone what my blogname means- it is one of the few instances where I use my name given
    at birth]

    I love Hillel, and Eleanor Roosevelt-

    “I get up, I walk, I fall down-
    Meanwhile, I keep dancing” and

    “A woman is like a teabag- you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water”.

    Growing up, my mother agonized over which record she hated most-Ravi Shankar,Jimi Hendrix, or Leonard Cohen…

    Fortunately for me, she smashed Jimi, and the others [along with Joni , Joan, and Bob] remained to give solace.

    I send you warm, big-sisterly embraces scented with naughty humor,strong coffee, and Black Aoud-

    Pamina and Bitsy-Biatch [my cavy girls extraordinaire] send you furry giggles and purrs]-

    love you

  • Cheezwiz says:

    Thank you for your touching post March. When I was a little girl my Grandma loved to buy Avon, so I had some of those funny shaped decanters as well as the solid perfume pins (I vaguely recall one in the shape of a sheep). I guess everything becomes a collectors item eventually!

    I associate Anais Anais with my young teenhood. I loved the soft-focus romantic ads & the pastely art-nouveau packaging. Perfect for a girl who spent all her time daydreaming, head in the clouds. I also spent alot of time in my room listening to mopey music./:) I recently tried Anais Anais again in the drugstore, and while it was familiar, it didn’t captivate me like when I was a teenager.

    I second Robin’s comment on the bottle – it (and the box)are absolutely gorgeous. Who cares if it’s Avon!

  • Nice story, thanks for sharing.

  • Dusan says:

    Ok, the alien-sounding Vozhd actually translates as Duke. I remember the tackiest ad for this cologne — a girl clad in leggings and a snug top (must have been that cos all we see is her silhouette on a chiaroscuro background) creeps up and down stairs, edges her way through murky corridors and ultimately tiptoes to a shadowed person (I’m guessing another gal) and – this is where the camera zooms in on her lips – announces, in a hoarse, pre-orgasmic voice: “Vozhd je stigao” (Duke has arrived) =))
    Now, for the life of me I cannot remember exactly what it smelled like. I’m sure it had some of that Russian Forrest you sent me, which is not bad at all skank-wise, but it was also sharper and woodsier in the cheap, generic kinda way. And it was downright macho, hairy chest, sweat and all.
    Gawd, I DID splash it to smell manly 😮

  • Elle says:

    Beautiful, very sad post – perfectly suited to the wonderful Joni. I didn’t grow up in the US, so we didn’t have Avon, but I did manage to get Coty’s Sweet Earth scents (the compacts w/ three scents). Loved them madly. My dad (very picky gay man w/ a great nose)gave me “better” scents to wear and I did love them, but I swear the Coty Sweet Earth scents could stand up to them and I still believe that although I haven’t smelled them for eons. I’ve been trolling ebay for them recently – hope to find some that sell for less than a king’s ransom (a woods compact went for around $300 a couple of months ago – sob!).

  • March says:

    Pam, I want to write something simple and tender thanking you for your kind, lovely and heartfelt words…

    but I can’t, because Veronica below you there with her Intense Trailing Arbutus comment has me making that snerking noise with my nose and picturing a giant, alien arbutus plant strangling me with its intense trailing tendrils… actually, V-Ron, I’ve always assumed “Intense” was a stronger version of something that became popular as, say, an EDT — the way Extreme is used (sort of) by L’Artisan. I bet that Jicky could eat through the bottle.

  • Veronica says:

    Not meaning to break the spell – I came across “Intense Trailing Arbutus by Harmony, Boston” (circa 1900) a few months ago.

    I was amused because I incorrectly assumed ‘trailing’ meant ‘sillage’. ‘Intense’ must have been the forerunner of ‘eau fraiche’, ‘sport’ or any one of dozens of appellations prefixed or suffixed onto perfumes’ names to distinguish it from the original and indicate ‘new and improved’.

    Somewhere there is a ninety-year-old girl wearing her special scent, cranking the Victrola, reminiscing… First dance, first boyfriend, first kiss.

    Also found JICKY! Jicky Ultra Ess DeLuxe by Hilbert, USA. It’s not just Ultra DeLuxe. It’s Ultra ESS DeLuxe! Sounds like a keeper!

  • Pam says:

    March, you are very brave to revisit such memories. I did not know that your mother and, indeed, all of you suffered so during her illness. It is sometimes a shock how keenly our memories are tied up with different smells and scents. Heartbreakingly beautiful post.

  • March says:

    Leopoldo — what a perfect day you’re having! I’ve spent a fair amount of mine out in the garden, weeding, which is also good therapy. Did you know many people are allergic to ladybugs? In terms of funky allergens, they’re as bad as cockroaches, I guess. No, seriously. Wonder if that’s why I’m sneezing… the hardest thing about working in the yard is not wearing any fragrance. It just kills me.

  • March says:

    Robin — it IS kind of a sweet bottle, isn’t it? Once I got over my shock of finding out it wasn’t, what, a vintage Balmain, I warmed up to it. When the girls get back from camp tomorrow, I’m going to solicit their opinions. It looks rather pretty sitting next to my funny, rotund vintage Guerlains.

  • Leopoldo says:

    Oh yes indeed I do still have my turntable, and I’ve given ‘Blue’ a listen today, and the beguiling ‘Miles of Aisles’ live album. I’m decorating, dancing and wallowing. The Cohen comes out next methinks.

    I really don’t know life at all.

  • Robin says:

    What a lovely post, M, and what a lovely bottle, even if the juice is crap.

  • March says:

    Mimi — yes, courage and a big, fat, honking sense of humor, eh?

    My mother was, in her way, a very brave woman. I have enormous empathy for her.

  • March says:

    Justine — the PINS!!!! I’d totally forgotten. I never had any, but a friend who had tons. I was insanely jealous.

  • March says:

    Teri — thanks for your long, thoughtful post. I do believe that those fragrance memories are formed long before we could attach any meaningful, memorable associations to them — they just “are.” So your explanation makes perfect sense to me.

    I’m sorry about your dad. The Big Cheese lost his father in a boating accident when he was nine. I tend to think that one of our shared gifts is the knowledge that life is fleeting, and our general attempts to live accordingly, within the confines of our obligations to others.

    Rubber Soul is a great, great album (I discovered it later, courtesy of the Cheese.) And yes, I am a firm believer in all memories, not just happy ones. I am still trying to suss out why En Passant makes me cry; I think there must be a reminder of something buried in there somewhere.

  • March says:

    Patch — cracking me up over here!!!! Coming up with other wildly inappropriate fragrance names to offer up.

  • March says:

    Cait — there is, in fact, more than a passing similarity to the olfactory bouquet of Straw Hat.:-? I wonder if subconsciously that has been part of the attraction for me.

    I am fairly confident that anyone smelling Trailing Arbutus without my scent memories would go, eeeeeewww.

  • March says:

    Dusan — Vozhd sounds very Alien Planet to me… what did it smell like? Wonder if it smells like Old Spice, or that green Mennen stuff … the universal U.S. dad smells of my youth.

    You splashed it on b/c it made you smell manly!

  • March says:

    P — I keep looking for Stephen B for you, it never pops up… you should let me know if you’re sniping it so we’re not bidding against each other. Yeah, Leonard Cohen is good mope music, too!:-<

  • I also want to say it’s a heartbreaking post. I also feel for your mother. Your post is a reminder that it takes courage to live life.

    Have a great day and life! (not perfect, but great, if you see what I mean.)

  • March says:

    Priscilla – thanks for stopping by. I think melancholy is underrated.

  • March says:

    Sariah — that juice probably DID smell like skunk (or “snunk” as the twins say.) But the juice was SO beside the point, as you say… no, I don’t think they have as many scratch ‘n sniff as they used to… not as many weird plastic scented toys either.

  • March says:

    Wow … look … there ARE nine of you reading this!:o

    Leopoldo — do you still have your turntable? I still have mine… and that original album. It’s kinda cloudy here today, a perfect Blue day.

  • Justine says:

    What a memory…growing up is hard even with healthy mom (just ask my own daughter, I’m sure). Reading your story makes me remember my own childhood and think whew, glad I’m done with that!

    I well remember the avon bottles, but even more, I remember the pins in a million different shapes, that opened to reveal solid perfume. I loved those things, probably because a friend had most of them and I had one or two.

  • Teri says:

    I’m sure this is a fact that all of you perfumeurs and perfumistas already know, but it bears reiterating here. Olfactory memories are some of the earliest memories that a human being forms and retains. Nothing takes one back to a time and a place more quickly than a particular scent that our brains noted, stored and remembered.

    Years ago when discussing this with my mother, I asked her if there were any reason I always associated the smell of violets with my early childhood. She looked at me quizzically and said that my great-grandmother had always put a hanky scented with a violet fragrance in her apron pocket, but surely I was far too young to have remembered this (my great-grandmother died when I was two years old). But the more we thought about it, the more we both believed that this was indeed the association. We had spent 6 weeks with Grand Nana the summer I turned one and was just learning to walk. My mother remembered me pulling myself upright by holding on to Grand Nana’s skirts. When upright, my face would have been very near that pocket which contained the violet scented hanky!

    Since I had no visual memories of my great-grandmother, I was thrilled to discover that I had an olfactory memory of her.

    March, my heart goes out to that oh-so-young you. I had a somewhat similar experience to yours. My father died on Labor Day the year I turned 13. My parents spent the summer at Mayo Clinc where they were making a last-ditch effort to save my father’s life. I stayed home, alone (in those days such things weren’t considered child abuse)caring for the house and our two dogs. I’m considerably older than you, so the album that was the melancholy soundtrack for that summer for me was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. To this day, I can’t hear “In My Life” without tears springing to my eyes. Calendar age aside, I became an adult that summer. I suspect, with your experiences, that you did as well.

    How wonderful that you were able to find the fragrance that you associate with that one particular time in your life. And who cares if it isn’t a fragrance classic? What it is is the 15 year old ‘you’ in a bottle. Not all memories are happy ones — nor should they be. The wonderful person that you are today was forged and molded by the hard times as well as by the good ones. If nothing else, when you’re having a grumpy out-of-sorts bad-hair kind of day, take a little whiff of this fragrance and let it remind you that you were strong enough to make it through that challenging summer. Knowing that, how bad can one little old out-of-sync day be?

    And btw—-“Blue” was the very first CD I purchased when CD players came out on the market! 🙂 I’d always loved it, and I still do.

  • patchamour says:

    Dear March,

    What a beautiful message. So many of us can identify with that remembered room. Hugs to you.
    In a rough time years ago I tried selling Avon. One of the fragrances was called something like “Eternity,” though that wasn’t the name. My “territory” included a retirement village and one day an extremely elderly woman answered my knock. I held out my little offering and asked her if she’d like a sample of “Eternity.” Only then did it hit me. (Slow, slow.) I think that was the day I quit.

    Take care.

  • Cait says:

    Dear March,
    I feel like I was zapped to your life in ’79 with that vignette. I believe I have smelled mayflower, too. How does this compare to the wonders of Straw Hat?

  • Dusan says:

    Your Joni Mitchell was my Tori Amos. I’m sorry about your Mom…
    I wish I had a fragrance that could send me down memory lane, wait… my Dad used Pino Silvestre and a ghastly aftershave called Vozhd. Why I used to stealthily splash myself with that crap is beyond me 🙂

  • Patty says:

    Makes me melancholy for the perfume of my teenage years, Stephen B, which never shows up anywere.

    Great post, and Joni’s “Blue” is a great album. My melancholy music is some Leonard Cohen – he always does it for me.

  • Priscilla says:

    What a melancholy yet lovely post.

  • sariah says:

    Lovely nostalgic post March. I’m guessing Patty won’t be selling decants of this one.

    I had an aunt who sold Avon, so I was gifted many animal shaped bottles. I have held onto my favorite skunk shaped bottle – now stuck shut forever. The juice was just so irrelivant. Wouldn’t that be cool if it had actually smelled like skunk? This is reminding me of another childhood collector’s item – scratch and sniff stickers – skunk, popcorn, cinnamon toash. Do the kids these days still have those?

  • Leopoldo says:

    Heartbreaking post. You weren’t alone in listening to Joni. I’m going to dig out ‘Blue’ today from the crates and overlisten myself. Big kiss.