I Am Not My Mother’s Daughter

How a company grew out of a Mason jar and a mother’s love
Words By Gabrielle Melchionda

I was retaking a flunked math class in college when a mason jar full of crimson rose petals changed the course of my life. I should have known, though it was not obvious right away. I was raised by my very feisty and French mother amid flower beds and bouquets, her trunk never without clippers, boots, and gloves. You never know when something growing by a roadside might beg to be clipped, with or without permission.

Growing up, I was easily impressed at friends’ houses: the latest shag carpet, a swimming pool, a fancy new video game. Keeping up with fads and fashion was frowned upon at my house. My bohemian parents created a simple home where the same dining room table has sat since 1973 when we moved in. Resources were to be saved for travel, cooking—and for my mother, gardening. Steeped in these values, the same kitchen where my mother worked her culinary and botanical magic became the birthplace of my career many years later, much to both of our surprise.

What began as a small patch of daffodils grew into an oasis behind our simple cape on a busy road. Easter eggs hidden among crocuses peeking through snow, graduation celebrations amid the ever-spreading purple irises of May, and mid-summer peonies with almost obscene bursts of fuchsia meant Fourth of July fireworks. My mother was always building, improvising, and creating; her prowess strengthening with each bulb planted.

My mother’s life and calendar are organized around her garden, and her mantra is flowers only—never vegetables. Somehow herbs are the exception, a convenient contradiction. An after-dinner tisane made with dried lemon verbena leaves; a rack of lamb with tiny chef hats on each bone and rosemary sprigs tucked in, delighting her endlessly. The taste of summer even in the dead of winter; her devotion to precision (and humor) not lost on me. There was often Julia Child’s voice blaring in the background, and sometimes a foot-stomp or two, signs of frustration; a dish was not done until it was perfect. I went from being a child intimidated by her conviction to a product-creator, seeing my visions come to life exactly as they appeared in my head, and not stopping until they did. Teeth grinding and heavy sighs became my version of her foot-stomp.

Every year as spring approaches, my mother waits for the ice and mud to recede and the ground to thaw. Early spring involves multiple inspections to see how each plant fared over the winter. When she deems it safe, all inside pots are brought into the yard and positioned for an optimal summer of light, watering, and outdoor pampering. During summer, she plans her travel around her garden’s needs, or when certain flowers bloom that she simply cannot miss. Early fall is a dance between enjoying the last warm days while also keeping an eagle eye on unpredictable frosts. Piles of crisp, white sheets are kept accessible in her tiny, cluttered gardening room to be pulled out for a last-minute cold snap. Large potted plants scattered about the deck turn into: “Ghosts! They look like ghosts!” she declares every year with the same enthusiasm and giggle. When late fall arrives, there is a mad dash to get all the pots inside, which now—as she approaches 80—requires the help of a small army of local young people. They take direction as she points to the specific spots in her sacred sunroom where each will winter inside. The cold months offer some respite from weeding and worrying as the plants sit happily, not realizing their good fortune to have landed in such capable and caring hands. When travel takes her away, her main concern is which plants will survive her absence. Despite someone having specific instructions on care, there are always casualties.

One might think I would have easily inherited her green thumb, having a front-row seat to such talent and obsession. One would be wrong. I managed to absorb plant identification and some names, but my aversion to worms and dirt kept me at arm’s length, happy as a reliable watering assistant.

My first (and only) business was born indirectly from flowers and unquestionably with the love of my mother. It happened in almost the blink of an eye. While I showed no natural talent for gardening, I had endless curiosity and energy. With my mother’s encouragement and enthusiasm, I was launched into a lifelong labor of love.

While retaking that painful math class, I happened upon a recipe for lip balm that got my attention when I noticed it called for rose petals. I went home to share my findings with my mom, and she instantly lit up, grabbed her purse, and started the car. There was new intention and focus on this flower mission. She had always entertained my obsessions (in dance, food, and music), but I had never expressed any interest that even came close to her love of flowers.

Inside the chilly cooler, standing near the tickly baby’s breath, I watched as she selected roses one by one, short-stemmed, all red. At home she carefully pulled the petals off, making small, neat piles on the wooden countertops. Following instructions, I filled the jar with petals and poured over the golden almond oil and watched them fall together, the petals darkening. I screwed the top on and left it in the sunroom, nestled among her cherished plants to steep.

When I returned a month later, I had everything on the list except for beeswax, which had become a mystery to procure. Seemingly with all the answers, my mother pointed me toward our neighbor’s house, explaining that the Xerox executive dad was also a beekeeper. Suddenly, the mysterious dressers behind his house made perfect sense. I had recently begun deflecting questions on my post-college future with reference to my aversion for bosses, cubicles, and pantyhose (it was the eighties). Imagine my surprise when my mother’s L’eggs pantyhose, from a plastic egg, turned out to perfectly strain the impurities from the wax—and prove how much I still had to learn. There is always a solution.

Under my mother’s watchful eye, I separated the petals from the oil and stirred in molten beeswax, before pouring it all back into the mason jar to cool. A few days later, sitting side-by-side in the sunroom with mother’s treasured plants, I scooped what had become a goopy mess into small plastic boxes. I left the crumpled flower petals behind in her stainless-steel sink and went off to share my concoction with the world.

I began selling what was no longer a goopy mess but now a smooth and beautiful lip balm called Mad Gab’s. I told myself it would be a fun project—why not? My old Saab became my office and delivery vehicle, a phone book and map, my co-pilots. Ten customers turned into fifty, fifty turned into one hundred, and so on.

I returned home to my mother’s kitchen for years, where I would neatly line up shiny, metal tins along the edges of the wooden counter and pour melted oil and wax into each, one by one. I scented the lip balms with essential oils, the most unique a French lavender. An unusual flavor for lip balm, certainly, but I resisted those who encouraged me to play it safe. My memory of French lavender wafting into our train cabin as we drifted through Provence when I was little was impossible to ignore. It became a top seller for 15 years. Later came Rosemary-Lime Shea butter hand balm and Basil-Tangerine body oil, among many others. “Lip Lube” became “Moose Smooch;” hand balms were renamed “Elephant Lubes.” Not every product was well-received, but I always felt deep pride in each creation for its creativity and uniqueness.

Over 30 years later, my mother still sips her tea in her sunroom, surrounded by plants. And my “fun project” continues to thrive, still rooted in the lessons learned at my mother’s side, mostly in her garden.▪

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