Meghan Reynolds

Meghan Reynolds of Orange won a "story slam" sponsored by National Public Radio in Washington last fall and will compete in a "grand slam" later this year. 

Late last fall, Meghan Reynolds attended a “story slam” sponsored by National Public Radio at the Miracle Theatre in Washington. A longtime listener to the popular NPR storytelling show called “The Moth,” Reynolds had qualified for participation, but she didn’t realize the event was a contest—or that only 10 people would be chosen to perform.

As names were drawn from a hat, and one by one, storytellers came on stage and addressed a crowd she estimated at 60 to 80 people, Reynolds texted back and forth with her husband, John, at home in Orange with their two children.

Then, Meghan Reynolds heard her own name called out. She was number nine.

Standing on stage, looking out at the darkened auditorium where she could see only the people in the front row, she told the story of how she’d tracked down her mother after three decades of wondering where she was and why she had left her three children behind when Meghan, the youngest, was still a toddler.

At the end of the evening, after the judges’ votes were tallied, Reynolds was proclaimed the winner. There is a “grand slam” storytelling competition later this year, and she said there is the possibility her story will be selected for inclusion on “The Moth” podcast.

The tale she told in D.C. took a little over six minutes—an extraordinary condensation of an ongoing journey toward reconciliation and self-acceptance. During an interview last week at her home on Little Skyline Drive, Reynolds talked matter-of-factly about the early hardships she endured, her determination to live a life of sobriety and her efforts to help others on the same difficult path.

A search, a detective, a knock on the door

Reynolds had been wondering about her mother for a long time. Her parents were divorced, and she was three years old when her mother took off for Bolivia with a boyfriend. There was no contact for 30 years. Then, with the help of a private detective, Reynolds tracked down the woman, a virtual stranger, in Miami Beach.

In the years leading up to the day she knocked on her mother’s door, Reynolds had lived a tumultuous life. Her father was an alcoholic, and after 12-year-old Meghan downed a cup of her father’s liquor, so was she. In her recollection, the transformation was instantaneous. From then on, her live revolved around drinking.

When she was 15, the Alexandria resident began a series of restaurant jobs that gave her easy access to alcohol. After high school, she moved to California and sang in a band. Her alcoholism made it hard for her to keep a job and stay out of trouble. After a few years, she decamped for Alaska, where her brother lived. While there, a friend convinced her to attend what she calls an “anonymous fellowship” for alcoholics.

After the first meeting, she went home and got drunk—clearly, she wasn’t on board with the program just yet. But she attended another meeting the next day and felt more at ease with that group of people.

Still she drank. By now, she was back in California. Then a friend in her fellowship group sat her down and urged her to replace alcohol with meditation and writing.

A fresh start

Creative and thoughtful by nature, she took the suggestion and finally began to see a way past her demons. Attending meetings regularly, meditating and writing every day, she got sober, enrolled in college and went into business with a group of friends.

Through mutual friends, she met John Reynolds of Orange, who was in California on a business trip. Eventually she and John married, and she has been able to run her business (owning and running the finances for a group of shoeshine and shoe repair businesses) mostly online. She and John have two children who attend Grymes Memorial School. Now 48, she has been sober for 23 years.

The thought of telling a deeply personal story before an audience of strangers may sound harrowing, but Reynolds had unwittingly prepared for it.

“Probably my experience going to meetings and sharing on a personal, intimate level for a couple of decades helped me a lot,” she said.

And it wasn’t like she was telling it off the top of her head. Reynolds had written her story in advance, rehearsed it and made sure it was the right length. An audio clip from the story slam reveals that she performed with energy, grace and a closing note of hopefulness.

After finding her mother in Miami Beach, Reynolds stayed in touch. But the questions and sorrows accompanying her mother’s decision to abandon her and her siblings could not be put to rest easily.

“Like a glass of cold water thrown in my face”

In the story she told at the Miracle Theatre, she wrapped things up by describing her 8-year-old daughter’s fervently expressed desire to know her grandmother. She recalled her daughter tearfully exclaiming, “It’s not right! It’s not right that you didn’t have a mother, and it’s not right that I don’t have a grandmother! You know, she’s not dead yet. It’s not too late!”

In the story, Reynolds continues, “It was like a glass of cold water just got thrown in my face, and I realized this child was crying the tears I never could have cried—and was making a plea that I would’ve made if I could’ve.”

With that in mind, she texted her mother that her granddaughter wanted to have a relationship with her: “Let’s see what we can do to make that happen.”

As she brings the story to a close, she announces that her mother is going to spend Christmas with the family. It’s a winning ending, in more than one sense of the word.

“Why did you go to Bolivia?”

Sitting in her living room that looks out on a spectacular view of the distant mountains, Reynolds calmly volunteered that, in fact, the Christmas visit had not gone well. During a one-on-one dinner at a restaurant that Reynolds recorded with her mother’s permission, she asked the questions she had long wanted to ask.

One of those questions was, “Why did you go to Bolivia?”

Her mother’s initial reply was not convincing, since it seemed to Reynolds that some of the details were made-up.

“And then she just took a big sigh of relief and just said, ‘You know what? Honestly, I just wanted to forget about it all and move on.’

Listening to her mother, Reynolds weathered the shock of a terrible truth. Her mother had moved far, far away from her three children without regret.

“I realized there’s nothing there, that whatever might’ve been there, the connection is broken and you can’t reconnect, you know?”

Recalling this revelation, which is still fresh, Reynolds’ gaze remained steady.

“It was definitely a harsh closure, but I’m glad to be disabused of the hopes that are not real.”

The lasting value of “big life experiences”

She is helping her daughter cope with the way things have turned out: “She’s now having her first experience of her hopes really being crushed, and so we’re dealing with that. But I’m not one to shy away from my kids having big life experiences. I’m happy for them to learn about it—you know, maybe prepare them well for the future.”

Reynolds said she continues to write and practice Transcendental Meditation every day. She is working on a memoir and has plans to write a children’s book with her children as contributors. She goes to anonymous fellowship meetings several times a week, sometimes more often. She runs a conference call fellowship meeting for women dealing with alcoholism. Participants from all over the country and as far away as Ireland and Japan call in for mutual support.

So, how are things these days?

“Best they’ve ever been—and also really good,” she said. “I think when you come out of something that's personally destructive, you see, ‘Oh, this is life.’”

Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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