Not my mother’s world: Living my mother’s dream an ocean away

May 11
Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen with her mother, Dorothy Johnson, in Heflin, Ala., in 1970. (Family photo)
Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen with her mother, Dorothy Johnson, in Heflin, Ala., in 1970. (Family photo)

PARIS — In some ways my mom and I are polar opposites, in others we are exactly alike.

My mother is painfully timid, while I make new friends instantaneously. She grew up in a small segregated town in Alabama and went to a segregated high school, which still stands on our street. I grew up in the same Alabama town and went to an integrated high school.

My mom strongly believed in education, that it was the gateway to a better life, and got her degree in nursing. She happily supported my decision, at age 17, to attend the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She didn’t try to make me work at one of the local plants like a few of my best friends were made to. Even when I goofed off or had less than stellar grades, she didn’t make me come home but rather encouraged me to be serious about getting my degree.

My mom always had dreams of living in a big city. When some of her classmates and best friends moved to New York City after graduating from high school, she was tempted to go. But she didn’t.

Instead she stayed behind and married my dad, in what would turn out to be an unlucky romance. My mom worked as a nurse until she retired, caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves. Her life has been filled with huge challenges — raising five children while working full time and going back to school to further her education.

For the past couple of years, I have been getting to know my mom as a woman — not just the person who birthed and raised me, and the person my children call grandmother. What I’ve found out about her — her likes, her dreams, her aspirations past and present — have surprised me. I’ve found out how painful yet fulfilling it was for her to run a nursing home, caring for people at the end of their lives. I’ve asked her about her feelings and fears growing up in Alabama in the ’50s and ’60s — going to the back door of restaurants to be served, waiting in the colored waiting room at the hospital while she was in labor with me.

​What I’ve discovered is my mom is one of the strongest and most courageous women I know. I have three kids and my hands are more than full. How she ever raised five and worked full time as a nurse astonishes me. And how she reconciled staying in Alabama despite the segregation and discrimination she had faced.

Like my mother, I also had a marriage that didn’t work out, but mine brought me to Paris, a dream come true because I’d always wanted to live in Europe. But what I really love about here is that my mom has been living this French life along with me for 15 years. We talk on the phone up to four times a day. She knows the name of my baker. The butcher. The babysitter. The kids’ teachers. All my French friends. And whenever she comes to visit me, I can tell by the smile on her face that it’s as if she’s finally living her very own dream. Whenever I tell her I’m tired of Paris, she says, “Stay!” When I say I’m homesick and want to move back to the U.S., she says, “Stay!” 

Maybe she didn’t leave Alabama as she wanted to — even now, she won’t leave permanently — but she somehow instilled in me an adventurous spirit, too. I’ve had the determination to follow my dreams, wherever they’ve taken me — New York City, South Korea, Paris — and she’s always supported me, wherever I ended up.  Thanks to my mother, we’ve both had one heck of a ride, and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning.

Women told us about how their lives differed from their mothers’, particularly in the professional space. Read about how expectations, choices and opportunities changed across generations: Not my mother’s world.

Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen is the editor and founder of Prissy Mag, an Anglophone webzine about life in Paris as an expat, and the author of “Stockdale” and “Next of Kin.” Find her page on Facebook.

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