I was sent the following writer’s prompt recently by a leader in my writer’s group: “Think back through your life and think about what you are most proud of. The items on your list could be things you accomplished ‘out in the world’ or things that happened internally. Knowing who you are and where you’ve come from, what have you done in your life that you are most proud of? Tell me your five proudest moments.”
Well. That’s not usually a list I think about very often, so it did take some time to come up with it. I wasn’t raised to pat myself on the back, and this blog tends to be about harsh life lessons I’ve learned. I guess it’s time for a little positivity! Here goes…
1. Getting my education
While getting a higher education might seem like a given for most people, especially in a developed country like the US, it wasn’t in my family and with my particular parents. I was the youngest of seven children and by all measures, we were poor. We lived in a one-bedroom house with a basement and the kids doubled and tripled up in beds downstairs; mom and dad had the only upstairs bedroom. We had one bathroom for the whole family; no shower. My parents were from large Polish families; my mother was raised on a farm. My dad only finished 6th grade and my mother 8th grade, and then they were sent out into the working world to help earn for the family.
When my mother heard of my plans to attend the local university, she laughed at me and tried to prevent me from going, saying, “It will just be a huge waste of money. You know you are only going there to meet boys.” This being at the peak of my battles with her, I persevered anyway, thinking “I’ll show her.” I was the first one of my siblings to earn a college degree. I received my BS degree 4 years later and, well, she was half-right as it turned out. I met and married my first husband a year before I graduated from the University of North Dakota, at 20 years old.
After graduation, my new husband and I moved to Dallas, Texas. He entered seminary and I got a job in the oil industry with my new degree in geology. Four years later I got laid off. Our plan was always that I would work while he earned his seminary degree; getting laid off derailed those plans something awful. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just get a job—any job—at that juncture. Secretary, store clerk, selling shoes, what have you. But I felt strongly that I wanted to stay in my profession, and all the jobs I was applying for were telling me, “Sorry, you don’t have your MS degree.” The job market was tightening up in the oil industry, and I was at a crossroads. Either I stayed in geology and got my MS, or I changed careers completely. I decided to go back to school and get my MS degree. A little bit of short-term pain for some long-term rewards was how I saw it. So that’s what I did.
My in-laws were furious with me; my church friends questioned what I was doing. Wasn’t our whole purpose in Dallas supposed to be all about Brad? Wasn’t my whole focus supposed to be all about supporting Brad’s degree plan? Why was I shifting focus to my own career? That wasn’t part of the plan! Had I prayed about this? And on and on and on.
In both cases I’m proud that I saw the value of a higher education and didn’t let other people’s attitudes and agendas color my goals. Having to support myself for most of my adult life has also made me grateful for the choices I made under difficult circumstances.
2. Quitting my job and starting my own company
My first job after completing my MS degree was in Houston, Texas, working as a geologist for an oilfield services company. What a godsend that job was—at first. It enabled me to finally leave my husband and strike out on my own for the first time in my life. But I was in a new city, knowing no one and having no support system there. Someone in management at that company sensed a vulnerable person in a fragile state of mind and, like a vulture, made a beeline for me. My own “Me Too” story followed, which I’ve never told anyone and won’t tell here either, other than to say it was about four more years of hell, mind games, and manipulation.
I remarried while at that company to my second husband Bill. After I came home once again with loud complaints and tears regarding some new injustice done to me, he had heard enough. He said to me, “Go to the calendar and circle a date. That is the date you are going to quit that job. Make a plan and get out of there.”
It was the push I needed. For the next 9 months I made my plan. I was done working for other people; I formed a new technical writing and editing company, the write enterprise, filing my DBA with the Texas Secretary of State. I attended seminars with the Small Business Administration on how to start and run my own business. This was the mid-1990s, and they told us that this “World Wide Web” thing was going to be big, so I claimed my own domain name: bergan.com. I created a brochure and a logo (the blue ink bottle). I started building mailing lists and contacting people, letting them know my plans. I started taking evening computer classes at Houston Community College. I started saving money. Day by day, I quietly moved all my personal belongings out of that office, as I was certain once I gave my 2-weeks’ notice, I would be asked to leave immediately. And I waited.
The date I’d circled was the day after my 5th anniversary with the company, when I became fully vested in their 401K plan. On that day I handed my supervisor my letter of resignation, who bumped it up the chain of command. They were pissed, because they were all primed and ready to give me my 5-year performance review, but I took the wind out of their sails. I wouldn’t let them utter a word of it; I didn’t want to hear it. They also realized they owed me a lot of money. And they made me work the entire 2 weeks.
The next weekend Bill and I threw a “Take This Job and Shove It” party (thank you, Johnny Paycheck, for providing the soundtrack). I’m also proud that the business I started then has sustained me for almost 30 years. In 2001, I incorporated and changed my business name to Bergan et al., Inc.
3. Leaving my third husband
I’m not proud that I married someone nobody liked and nobody saw any future for me with. Despite all the problems and issues we had, all the breakups and makeups we went through, I still barreled ahead and married someone who had more red flags than an Indy 500 race. I believed he’d changed for the better; believed in the full year of better behavior and apparent turnaround in his personality. What I am proud of, is that once the honeymoon was over and he started to show his true colors again, and once a therapist showed me what and who I was dealing with, I wised up, cut my losses, and got out as soon as possible. Within 9 months we headed for the divorce mediator and by the 11th month I was long gone. My last stop before heading out of Houston was the pawn shop, where I sold my wedding and engagement rings. That was my guarantee to myself that this on-again, off-again romance would never be on-again, again.
My gut instincts about this guy were right. His trail of misery continued: he married Wife #5 within 10 months of our divorce becoming final. That wife divorced him 2 years later.
4. Maintaining a lifelong friendship
When I was 11 years old, I saw an ad in the back of a teen magazine: “Do you want a foreign pen pal?” “Cool!” I thought. I sent my name and address in and hoped I’d get a response someday.
Over in Norwich, Norfolk, England, another 11-year-old girl did much the same thing. She saw an announcement posted on a bulletin board at school: “Do you want a foreign pen pal?” She thought, “Well, that sounds all right! I’ll do that.” She also sent her name and address in.
Somehow, our two names got matched up in this process, and letters got exchanged. I still remember the thrill of her first letter arriving in my mailbox, 54 years ago. “Oh my God! It worked!!” I remember examining the light-blue, paper-thin envelope, the foreign stamp with Queen Elizabeth’s bust on it, and her tiny handwriting (which hasn’t changed). She signed her letter, “Much Love, Yvonne xoxo.” I was over the moon.
Over the years, we slowly tracked each other’s growing-up milestones. Junior high, then high school. Summer photos at the beach. Christmas photos. High school graduation photos. Boyfriends. Then weddings. I’ll never forget the day of my first wedding: a telegram, coming from Yvonne in England, wishing me congratulations! Then her wedding photos a few years later. The births of her children.
More years go by. Divorce, remarriage, more divorce (that was me). Deaths, births, tragedies, disasters, natural and otherwise. Phone calls from England: “Gail, are you sitting down? I have something to tell you.” Life-shattering news.
I’d be lying if I said our interest in each other hasn’t waxed and waned over the decades, which is natural to any friendship, I think. But I’m proud we’ve kept this relationship alive all these years when it would have been easy to let things go. After 54 years of writing, then emailing, then Facebook, then Whatsapp, we just spent a week here in Houston, celebrating our 65th birthdays together. It was only the second time we’d met in person. The first time was in 1999, mentioned in this story.
5. Staying straight
Now this one may need some explanation. By “straight” I don’t mean heterosexual. Long before straight meant the opposite of gay, it used to be short for “straight-laced,” meaning boring, meaning these people don’t party, meaning straight as in what they used to call me and my friends in high school who didn’t do drugs and alcohol. Remember straight in the 60s and 70s? Yes, I’m grateful that I largely stayed away from the two demons that have wrecked more lives than I can shake a stick at. Is this an accomplishment? I think so.
My fear of these things that can ruin lives started at a young age, hammered into us by a mother who told her five daughters in no uncertain terms, “Don’t ever come home pregnant, and don’t ever bring home a Black man.” This was the same mother who insisted to her dying day that she wasn’t prejudiced, by the way, but guess what? None of us daughters ever did. We knew the consequences of crossing that lady the wrong way. For myself, her iron rod instilled in me a fear of screwing up in general, a fear so deep that experimenting with drugs and alcohol to any serious extent was permanently off the table.
Even after I was safely out of my childhood home, living with my first husband and in graduate school, I recall attending geology field camp and one of my few forays of smoking weed with my fellow students one night. It gave me the spins so bad that I threw up—no, hosed—all over the inside of our university van. To this day I have no idea who had to clean that up and I apologize profusely for that. But that night I learned all I ever needed to know about weed. Smoking dope = throwing up. Thank you, God, for the negative association. No one hates throwing up more than I do.
As far as drinking, I experimented as much as the average teen, but migraines saved me from a life of beer breath and debauchery. I discovered around age 21 or so that alcohol triggered my migraines. Now I love a good buzz as much as the next person, but it was never worth the pain and agony of spending the next 3 days in bed, especially before medical research had advanced to discover Sumatriptan and all the wonderful prophylactics we have today. It’s sad that watching my own father and my drunk uncles wreak havoc on their families wasn’t enough of a reason for me to stay away from the booze, it was my own health issues, but there it is. I’m grateful I never fell down that rabbit hole, regardless of the reason.
Well, there you have it—my list, for better or worse. No Nobel prizes and I haven’t made my first million yet, but there is always next year’s list. If you have something you’re particularly proud of, let us know in the Comments below! Heck, let’s start a brag-fest! If you want to write a full blog post about it, submissions are open; let’s discuss it! I invite you to peruse my submission requirements, and if you have any further questions, you can reach me via my Contact page.