About courage and women | The Story of Rita Wilson’s mother
Rita Wilson’s acceptance speech at the Anne Morgan Women of Courage Award
American Friends of Blérancourt – New York, November 9, 2018
“We are lucky to live in a world where we’re surrounded by women of courage,” the actress, producer, singer and songwriter Rita Wilson said the evening she was bestowed with the Anne Morgan Women of Courage Award by the American Friends of Blérancourt. “At the time when we celebrate the centennial of the end of World War I, we wanted to honor and recognize women of exceptional talent and commitment to empowerment of women throughout the world,” explained the President of the American Friends of Blérancourt Countess Dorothea de la Houssaye.
Telling the story of her own mother, the producer of Mamma Mia and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, emphasized the need to tell the stories of women around the world whose actions, just like the ones by Anne Morgan, defined what we can all individually accomplish.
“That’s something Anne Morgan understood well,” explained Wilson. “She spent her extraordinary life on the front lines: as a union organizer in 1910, as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I, as a philanthropist who stayed and helped France rebuild long after others had left.
But Anne Morgan also believed in the power of telling stories. As one of the first women documentarians, she knew that if you want to solve a problem you have to shine a spotlight on it, and sometimes point a camera at it. And you can’t just tell us about the world you hope to see – you have to show us, in the way that only a work of passion and creativity can.
And then there are the women – millions upon millions of women – whose stories we may never know: mothers who face overwhelming danger to build a better future for their children; girls who risk their lives just to go to school; working women everywhere who break through glass ceilings large and small. The quiet, humble courage that sustains them each day is an inspiration to all of us.”
Here is the story of Rita Wilson’s mother.
The quiet, humble courage that sustains women each day is an inspiration to all of us.
“Most people knew my mom by her nickname, Dorothitsa. And she knew everyone by whatever name popped into her head at the moment. I remember once she said to me:
– ‘They say she’s pregnant.’
I said, ‘Who’s pregnant?’
– ‘You know, the one who’s married to the one who used to date Wayne Petrol?’
– ‘Wayne Petrol?’
It turns out she was talking about Jennifer Aniston. ‘Wayne Petrol’ was Gwyneth Paltrow. My mom was really good at picking out a hit on the radio, but she was very bad with names.
Looking at her sitting in her Southern Californian home, trying and failing to keep up with celebrity gossip, you’d never think my mother once made the kind of daring, death-defying escape you think only happens in movies. But that’s exactly what she did.
My mom taught me what courage really means.
She was born in 1921, in Auburn, New York, a first-generation American. Her parents were originally from a small town called Sotira—which means ‘savior’ in Greek—a village in Albania, nestled in the mountains that form the border with Greece.
When she was four years old, my mom went with her brothers, sister, and parents to visit that village. And while she was there, her father died. We still don’t know if it was an accident – he was anti-Communist and an anti-Fascist activist, and one story is that he was killed for his beliefs. Either way, the relatives back in New York didn’t want to have to support a widow and three children. So, they told my mother, her sister and brothers, and my grandmother to stay in Sotira. Her siblings eventually moved to Athens.
But that little village is where she spent the next fifteen years.
Until one day, near the end of the Second World War. Italian and German troops occupied the town. They weren’t allowing anyone in. They weren’t allowing anyone out. Guards were posted in the mountains, with orders to shoot anyone caught trying to escape.
But they had to escape. My grandmother went first, leaving my mother behind so as not to arouse suspicion. And then, one night, my mother took nothing but the clothes on her back, and a set of silverware handed down through her family for generations and fled into the mountains toward Greece.
She was nineteen years old and left the only home she had ever known. Imagine going up into those dark, cold mountains on foot, walking past the fields she played in, the rivers where she used to wash laundry, and the places she knew so well, now so full of danger. Imagine her heart pounding with every cough, every shadow in the moonlight, every snap of a twig.
How could she possibly have found the will to do something like that?
And yet she did it. All night, she climbed through those mountains, dodging guards, finding her way, pushing forward. And finally, the next day, she reached Greece. She was alive. She was safe.
Eventually they made it back to the United States, where my mom met my dad, started a family, moved to California and clearly never learned who Gwyneth Paltrow was. But that one act of bravery – leaving everything behind at just nineteen years old – defined her. That act of courage shaped the rest of her entire long and fulfilling life.
I am so lucky to have a mom with a story like that. There were so many lessons she learned in that one night – lessons she passed down to me.
I often used to ask my mom how she found the strength to leave everything behind, knowing that her life was in danger. And she always told me the same thing. She had no choice.
That’s the first thing my mom taught me about courage. So often we talk about ‘finding’ courage as if it’s something we have to go looking for. But for my mother, and for millions of women like her, courage was something already there. They had this hidden fire of bravery burning inside them, ready for the moment they needed it. A courage that arises when you have no choice.
If courage is something we already carry within us, maybe we can find a way to harness it, to light that spark, even when the stakes aren’t life or death. No, not everyone is brave–but everyone has the capacity to be brave. Doesn’t that you make you hopeful about the world?
My mom also taught me that being brave doesn’t mean being fearless.
For decades, she used to have nightmares about her village. Even though by then she had lived in Southern California almost her entire adult life, she would awake in a panic, sure she was stuck in Sotira and that this time there was no way out. More than forty years after her escape, when my siblings and I brought her back to the village for the first time, it took a lot of convincing, persuading her that everything would be okay.
So often women are labeled as either courageous or scared. One or the other. But that’s a false choice. My mom was incredibly courageous, and you know what, she was also scared. She was both. And I’m so glad she was both. She showed me that courage is not the absence of fear.
Courage is what you do despite the presence of fear.
Finally, my mom taught me that courage is not a finite resource. In fact, it’s the opposite. Throughout history, acts of courage lead to more acts of courage. That was true in my mother’s life. That night as a teenager, fleeing through the mountains on foot, is what I think led her to empathize with anyone, anywhere, who was persecuted. My mother understood from her own life story that we are all in this together – and her experience gave her the fortitude to stand up for what she believed in.
And I also know her courage has been handed down over generations, because her experience is something I’ve come back to time and time again in my own life. Like when I found movies to produce like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mamma Mia, movies starring women, even though I was told audiences would never buy tickets. Or when I decided to start a new career as a singer-songwriter. Or when I’ve set out to tell important stories or support important causes, even though they’re controversial – all those things have been so much easier because I had my mom’s story to give me strength.
I hope this story can give new generations of women just a little bit more strength as they make brave decisions of their own.
It doesn’t have to be climbing a mountain in the dead of night. It can be the courage to try something new, to express yourself in a different way, to demand a seat at the table even when you’re not sure you’re ready. It can be the courage to stand up to a bully instead of being a bystander, to try to make things a little bit better when you don’t know you’ll succeed, to help others even when the world seems not to care. That’s the kind of courage women have always carried with them. And it’s the kind of courage we need more than ever right now.”
Excerpts of Rita Wilson’s speech delivered in New York on November 9th, 2018 at the American Friends of Blérancourt annual gala.
Pictures by Annie Watt Agency for the American Friends of Blérancourt
Video by 37EastPr