The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming

The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming

4.3 9
by Jeannie Ralston

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“I couldn’t help but question how I’d gotten to this strange spot in my life, so far from what I’d expected for myself. Yes, there had been a heady romance a few years back. Then a slew of subsequent decisions, fueled by love and yearnings I didn’t even know I had. But I never, ever would have suspected that this was where the sum


“I couldn’t help but question how I’d gotten to this strange spot in my life, so far from what I’d expected for myself. Yes, there had been a heady romance a few years back. Then a slew of subsequent decisions, fueled by love and yearnings I didn’t even know I had. But I never, ever would have suspected that this was where the sum total of them would bring me. That afternoon a new doubt dripped into my mind. When do you know, I wondered, whether the choices you’ve made were the right ones?”

In 1990, Jeannie Ralston was a successful magazine writer and bona fide city girl—the type of woman who couldn't imagine living on soil not shaded by skyscrapers. By 1994, she had called off an engagement, married Robb, a National Geographic photographer, and was living in Blanco Texas, population 1600.

The Unlikely Lavender Queen is the intimate story of a woman who gives up a lot for the man she loves – her beloved blue state, bagels and all-night bodegas—only to have to wonder: Was it too much? Ralston offers a lively chronicle of her life as a wife, new mother and an urban settler in rural Texas. As she labors to convert a dilapidated barn into a livable home, deal with scorpions and unbearably hot summers, raise two young children while Robb is frequently away on assignment, she realizes her ultimate struggle is to reconcile her life plans and goals with her husband’s without coming out the proverbial loser. And just when it seems like she might be losing that fight--and herself-- a little purple bloom changes her life.

For centuries lavender has been a mystical herb, so valuable to ancient Romans that a bushel would cost nearly a month’s wages. But when Robb returns from a trip to Provence with a plan for growing lavender on their land, Ralston is not convinced—in fact the last thing she needed or wanted was to take up farming on top of everything else. Then, much to her surprise, she slowly but surely falls in love with lavender, and in the course of growing and selling blooms, hosting the public at the farm, and creating lavender products, she discovers a new side of herself. A few short years later, Ralston had built Hill Country Lavender, a thriving commercial enterprise that transforms both her little corner of Texas and her life.

The Unlikely Lavender Queen will resonate with all women who have faced the tough choices that come with “having it all” and secretly (or not so secretly) hoped for great adventure to come along and surprise them. Ralston’s honest, funny, and poignant memoir is a testament to the fact that such adventures await us around every bend in life.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Arriving in Manhattan for a McCall'smagazine summer internship when she was 21, Ralston was smitten with big-city life. Soon she had the career of her dreams, a Chelsea apartment, even a film student fiancé. Then, on a feature assignment for Life, she met Robb, a photographer for National Geographic, and her life was up-ended. Before long, Ralston was leaving her boyfriend and New York City, to move with Robb to his home state of Texas. They settled first in Austin, but Robb wanted a less urban lifestyle, so they bought land with a creek and an old stone barn in the Texas Hill Country. Robb's busy schedule of international photo shoots left Ralston in charge of house renovations, hardly her forte. Then Robb had his next idea-they'd raise lavender on their limestone-rich land, which was similar to the soil of Provence. Ralston agreed, provided they start having children. Together, they began a successful niche-industry, growing and processing lavender into a variety of marketable products. In this satisfying and enjoyable story, the reluctant Ralston eventually falls in love with their fields of lavender. (May)

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Kirkus Reviews
Feisty former New Yorker chronicles her second career as a Texas lavender farmer. Enamored of her life as a high-powered journalist with a penchant for designer shoes, Ralston figured that moving to Austin was enough to satisfy future husband Robb's desire to escape Manhattan's glitz and return to his native Texas. But then Robb, a globetrotting photographer for National Geographic, started to find Austin too urban and began lobbying for a home in the country; the 33-year-old author, eager to have a baby, agreed to another move in return for his promise that they'd start a family. The couple eventually bought land in the rural, politically conservative community of Blanco. There, inspired by a visit to the lavender fields of Provence, they started the first commercial lavender farm in Texas while raising two sons in a renovated barn. Irritatingly, nearly half the book is comprised of the author's whining about the failings of Blanco compared to New York. Readers will grow weary of her nonstop rant about the lack of art, culture, cappuccino and couture fashion in a milieu where camouflage-clad, deer-stalking hunters reigned supreme. Ecstatic when she was finally able to secure a daily subscription to the New York Times, the author obsessed about losing lucrative freelance assignments with periodicals that counted. A fascinating saga about the history of lavender and its cultivation in the United States fights valiantly to emerge from the underbrush of Ralston's emphasis on the negatives in her life. By the time she gets around to celebrating her achievements as a pioneering lavender farmer and entrepreneur, the reader's patience has worn thin. Still, the book is likely to find an audienceamong upscale career-change seekers, aspiring small-business owners and those grappling with work, family and "quality of life" concerns. A lively read undermined by an unbridled hissy fit. Agent: Richard Pine/InkWell Management

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Read an Excerpt

Severed Roots

I couldn't have missed Mortimer's that night. From two blocks away I saw that the rarefied air surrounding this famous haunt of stupendous somebodies on the Upper East Side was shuddering with flashes of light. I was reminded of the view of thunderheads from an airplane—the convulsions of lightning inside always appeared to me as if the gods were battling within the clouds, and here in the loftiest neighborhood of Manhattan, gods of another kind were waging their own type of battle. For attention. The paparazzi were out in force, focused at the moment, I could see, on Ronald Perelman, the chairman of Revlon, and his wife Claudia Cohen, a gossip columnist. The two were standing perfectly still inside a wreath of photographers, his arm was draped around her shoulders. Their faces were frozen in a grin–gnash that barely hid the contempt for the hands that fed their celebrity.

Through the front windows, I saw swaying silhouettes in various party postures—drinks to mouths, hand on someone's shoulder, heads cocked back in an exaggeration of ecstatic laughter. Right before I crossed Lexington Avenue, into the arc of Mortimer's halo, I checked myself. Over a black camisole and a short black lace skirt, I wore a sheer black blouse with a gold shimmer that I'd bought at a SoHo boutique. On my feet were a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps borrowed from a friend who worked for Anne Klein. I counted my blessings that I had a fashion industry friend who was my exact size.

Once I made my way through the door and into the bright light, I grabbed a glass of wine and began to circulate. I saw socialite Anne Slater, sitting at the bar in her famous -blue--tinted glasses, and thought that she must have been Anna Wintour's role model for sunglass ubiquity. I noticed Martha Stewart and publishing executives I could identify from Page Six. Two women whose skin was pulled tightly over their yesterday's–deb bone structure were gushing over the man who was the reason for this gathering, Dominick Dunne, who I noted was much shorter than I expected. It was May 1990 and the party was to celebrate the publication of his novel, An Inconvenient Woman.

As much as I enjoyed star watching, I was actually there to work—eavesdrop really. I was profiling the woman behind the event--a distinguished party planner named Nancy Kahan who had a track record of pulling off the most over-the-top publishing events in the city. I caught up with her and watched her in full schmooze for a while, then I had to race off to a French restaurant called Pierre's in Greenwich Village, around the corner from where I'd once lived.

This article I was writing—commissioned by a friend at Manhattan Inc. magazine—had caused a serious rift with my fiance, Ben. The magazine needed the story in a week's time to fill in a hole in the lineup of their next issue, and the seven–day deadline happened to coincide with my fiance's graduation from New York University Film School. Ben's father had come in from overseas and his mother was up from Nashville with her second husband. A man who loved good theatrics and high living, Ben had wanted to mark the occasion as if it were the Oscars. There was a week's worth of parties and dinners in his honor. He hadn't wanted me to take the assignment, but I refused to give up the opportunity to write something for Clay Felker, who had recently taken over as the editor of the magazine. Felker was a journalism legend, one of the original proponents of the New Journalism (nonfiction that reads more like a novel) I'd studied in my magazine writing class at the University of South Carolina. I had assured Ben I would sacrifice sleep to make all his events and my deadline.

That night I thought I would join Ben, his mom, and stepfather by the time they were ready to order their meal. But in the end, I didn't make it until dessert. Ben didn't even look at me as I slipped into a chair beside him and made my apologies.

When we got back to our Chelsea apartment, Ben finally deigned to talk to me. Well, talk isn't the right word. He was furious that I had missed dinner and cursed the story I was working on. "You're just not there for me," he said at the end of his rant.

Those words might as well have been a crank on a jack-in-the-box. Suddenly, I had sprung up out of my chair. I heard my skirt rip, but I'm not sure how I heard it, my voice was so loud. "Not there for you! Not there for you!" I spit. When I threw my hands in the air, as my 50 percent Italian blood preordained I must, I caught my silver beaded necklace. Beads bounced all over the floor as if a gumball machine had been broken open. I tried to convey the multifaceted ways in which his charge was offensive. The truth was I had taken care of him for four years, since I met him on an airplane flying from Nashville to New York in 1986. I had let him move into my apartment with me; I had helped him write his application to NYU film school. I ran our household, paid the bills, did the laundry, cooked our dinners. He had already exhausted me.

After my eruption, I locked myself in my office. I could not expend any more energy on fighting since I had to start writing my story on the party planner. I resolved to smooth things over so that I could get through the assignment and his grandiose graduation. I had a trip to Texas coming up the following week. That would give me time to think.


I have always been a leg woman. I love a well–shaped man's leg. I have been known to watch a men's tennis match solely for those moments, shot from behind, when the player is bent over slightly, dribbling the tennis ball right before serving. That angle affords the best view of long, handsome legs.

Nothing, however, beats seeing nice legs in the flesh, and a week later I was in Texas, eyeing a particularly gorgeous set. Calves like sinuous interpretations of an -upside--down Coke bottle. The pair belonged to a man I'd just met. He was a young photographer, single and straight, from what I could tell, and I was at a cookout at his house in Houston. We were scheduled to fly to Fort Worth the following day to start our story for Life magazine about B. Don Magness, the longtime director of the Miss Texas Pageant. I had met Magness once before in Houston and thought he was such an outlandish Texas character that he would be a perfect profile for Life.

I had not wanted a male photographer to shoot the story. A female would have less trouble getting behind-the-scenes shots. But several weeks earlier my editor had called me up to float an idea.
"I've got this guy in Texas I'd love to use, if you'll agree," she said. "He's so talented and young. And so cute."

"Okay," I told her after some thought. "I guess it could help to have someone from Texas."

Maybe it was the cute part that got me to agree. But it was the word young that spiked my eyebrow. I was used to people commenting on my youth. I was an associate editor of McCall's at twenty–two and editor-in-chief of my own magazine by twenty–five. I'd already been published in most of the major women's magazines and reported a cover story (among other articles) for Time magazine while working freelance in the New York bureau. At twenty–nine, I had reported several stories for Life—the Life magazine I'd read faithfully growing up—and now was writing my first Life feature.

After I agreed to this photographer, named Robb Kendrick, I had an occasion to doubt my choice. The night after I fought with Ben, I was wearing a perky party face for a get-together at our Chelsea apartment. I was in the steamer-trunk-sized kitchen cutting up pizzas I had made myself from my mother's recipe for hors d'oeuvres when Ben stuck his head in to tell me I had a phone call. "It's that photographer for the Life story, Robb Kendrick."

"Oh," I said, my fingers smeared with tomato sauce, "could you tell him I'll call him back tomorrow." Ben disappeared, and as I was putting the pizzas on a platter he came back with a quizzical look on his face.

"He said no."


"He said no, you couldn't call him tomorrow. He needs to talk to you now."

Who the hell does this guy think he is, I thought as I washed my hands and wiped them on the blue tunic and skirt I'd recently bought in Paris. I walked back to my office, away from our chattering friends in the living room. Just what I need, another fucking demanding man, I thought. I was cranky from lack of sleep—I had stayed up till three the night before trying to make headway on the Kahan profile—and was prepared to let him know that we weren't going to work together well if he couldn't be flexible.

"Hi, Jeannie," he began. "I'm sorry; I know you're having a party, but I'm working on a story in the mountains in Georgia and I don't know when I'll be near a pay phone again."

Something about his voice—a mellowness, a rich timbre—calmed me. I found all my armaments sliding away. I chatted with him for fifteen minutes while the party swirled outside my office door. In the end, we were laughing over his rendition of "Dueling Banjos," inspired by his location in the mountains of North Georgia. When he found out that I was going to be in Houston the next weekend for a Glamour story before heading up to Fort Worth for Life, he invited me to a cookout at his house.

Now that I was in his backyard with some of his Houston friends, the sight of his legs somehow put the failings of Ben in stark relief. Ben's legs were chunky, with no differentiation between calf muscle and ankle. Even Ben referred to his lower limbs as Fred Flintstone legs. Comparing the two sets of legs—the photographer's and my fiance's—produced a stab of awareness. How could I marry a man whose legs I didn't adore?

Just before arriving at his house for the cookout, I had talked to my mother, who was pressing me to decide on a place for my wedding. Ben and I had been engaged for two years, and a long engagement is never a good sign. Dates and locations were batted around, but we could never agree. We had tentatively looked at the coming fall and my mother had sent me brochures for hotels near her in the Smoky Mountains. I had carried them to Houston, but hadn't yet looked at them.

"If we want to reserve for this October, we need to make a deposit on one of these places," she told me when I had talked to her from Houston. "It's getting a little late."

"I know," I said, but I couldn't imagine my parents putting money down on my wedding at a moment when marrying Ben seemed as appealing as a dermabrasion. "But listen, I'm really tired. I've got these two stories I need to work on here. Let me think about this when I get back to New York."

Then I met Robb Kendrick at his house. Then I noticed his legs. Then, after I settled in a lawn chair in his backyard with a glass of wine, I observed that on one gorgeous calf muscle was a tattoo. A small, discreet eye.

By the end of the party, I was taking note of other things. His -lagoon--blue eyes. His impish smile. The curls that had fallen out of his ponytail. His one gold earring. I could see my editor was a reliable source. He was cute. Perilously cute.

The peril seemed to increase the following day when Robb and I arrived at our hotel in Fort Worth to start our story. The rooms they gave us were adjoining.

The door between the rooms stayed locked for the first three nights of our assignment. During that time, we followed around our subject, B. Don Magness, a balding man with glasses and a swell of a stomach, as he helped contestants prepare for the state pageant, a month away. With Robb and me in tow, he dished out so many outrageous comments I complained of quote overload. He described a woman he didn't like as “uglier than a she-wolf who's been shit over a side of a cliff.” He criticized one contestant's lack of hair volume. “It's so flat it looks like a cat's been sucking on it.” The antidote for such an affliction? Hairspray. More hairspray. He'd once given a T-shirt to a former Miss Texas that read, In Case of Rape, This Side Up. B. Don had his own T-shirt that he was quite proud of. It said, Matthew, Mark, Luke and B. Don.

On our off-hours, when we weren't laughing over this crude old man, we went out to dinner with friends of Robb's in Dallas, we drank margaritas for lunch. We were determined to memorize the words that Madonna chanted in the middle of her song "Vogue," and on the third night after we'd returned to our separate rooms, I heard it on the radio and finally figured out the missing parts. I called Robb next door and sang him the entire ditty. And though I had found little time to speak to Ben over the past few days, Robb and I talked on the phone for an hour. Awkwardly, we both knew all we had to do was unlock one door to see each other, but the phone was so much safer.

On the fourth day, we made a bet. We both tried to guess what the B in B. Don stood for. Of course I said Billy. Billy Don. Robb thought this was too obvious. He guessed Barry, which seemed so wrong that I wondered if he had truly grown up in Texas. The loser of the bet had to take the winner out to the most expensive restaurant in Fort Worth and not put it on an expense account. After dinner, Robb added, the loser had to carry the winner across the lobby of our hotel.

I won the bet—I suspect Robb knew I would with his pitiful guess. At dinner that night at a romantic French restaurant called Saint Emilion, I found myself too nervous to eat much of my roast duck. I had felt this intense, almost immediate infatuation only a few times before. I knew I was in love. My mother had once told me I would never find a man who met all my requirements, but here he was. I allowed myself to imagine a life with him—traveling, working together, laughing. I imagined the freedom, the psychic energy I would save from being with a man who could take care of himself. I was so completely besotted with Robb—sitting at the table in his crisp white shirt and purple tie with an abstract image of a chorus girl—that my stomach felt as functional as a chunk of putty.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

JEANNIE RALSTON is a contributing editor to Parenting and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Life, The New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications. She and her family currently live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Hill Country Lavender can be found on the web at Please also visit where you too can share your story of unexpected adventure.

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The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
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MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
Jeannie Ralston has beautifully written a heartwarming memoir candidly sharing her transformation from big city girl to rural lavender farmer. As a New York City journalist, she meets and marries Robb, a globe-trotting National Geographic photographer. A marital compromise lands her in Hill Country, Texas, living a country life she never would have imagined for herself. In time, she finds herself knee-deep in her husband's next project.growing lavender. Robb's frequent travels leave her alone to manage it all.the children, farm, business and finances. Discovering many new talents along the way, her determination turns her venture, Hill Country Lavender, into a highly successful business that forever changes her and the entire region. Ms. Ralston has done a brilliant job describing all of the joys and hardships of her life as a wife, mother, and entrepreneur. Her writing style is utterly captivating, and her humorous spins on many of her experiences were laugh-out-loud funny. I absolutely adored this wonderful book and I highly recommend it! Its inspirational story is overflowing with important lessons about life and love. Ms. Ralston's ability to adapt and thrive in adverse circumstances is impressive and she serves as an excellent role model to us all. In the end, we don't always end up doing what we set out to do.and in her case, that's a good thing!!
MarthaTX More than 1 year ago
I found Jeannie's book to be written with great honesty and heart. Her adventures taking her from being an upscale NYC glamour writer to a Lavender Farmer in the Texas Hill Country are funny, sad, exciting, depressing, joyful, surprising ... overall, full of LIFE. One minute you think Jeannie is living a dream life. The next you feel sorry for her. Her story illustrates that life's twists and turns usually offer a fair share of disappointment, but ultimatley MANY MORE more rewards outshine the let-downs. Following Jeannie's twists and turns inspires others to also accept life as it presents itself ... that often the unknown and unexpected bring along surprising situations of happiness and satisfaction.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a relaxing read, entertaining and also educational. Never knew so many uses for lavender. Also, living in same basic area (San Antonio) as the author lives made it all the more interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love lavender. Just the name emotes the scent in my mind. To read of a transplanted New Yorker farming lavender fields in West Texas really got my attention. The author, Jeannie Ralston gives a very realistic account of life as a journalist marrying a National Geographic photographer without losing the romance of their story. I have made this book a 2008 Pulpwood Queen Book Club Selection as I love to read stories that give a new voice to literature. Her book is highly discussable and should be a perfect book for book clubs as she is a real woman, someone all of us can relate to. A woman who is dealt a hand that she plays to perfection. I would love to meet the author and the ending took me totally by surprise. Can't wait to talk about this book with my book club members. Tiara wearing and book sharing, Kathy L. Patrick Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs