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A single mom who packed backpacks and slayed dictators

Trailblazer: Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who died aged 84 last month. President Joe Biden and top diplomats paid tribute to Albright, the first woman to hold the job, this week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

It began with soaring tributes to one of America’s lions.

"With her goodness and grace, her humanity and her intellect, she turned the tide of history," President Joe Biden said, at Madeleine Korbel Albright's funeral on Wednesday.

The 1,400 heads atop dark suits nodded solemnly in one of our nation's grand and sombre rituals, beneath the Neo-Gothic nave of Washington National Cathedral where we celebrate and grieve American giants.

She went "toe-to-toe with the toughest dictators", Biden said.

The choir sang.

It's what our nation lauds -- mettle, sagacity and “cojones” (a word she famously used in foreign policy, her former boss, President Bill Clinton, remembered.) And she did it while making history as a woman.

"Welcome to our fraternity," Henry Kissinger told Albright, when she was confirmed as America's 64th - and first female - secretary of state in 1997.

"Henry," Albright told him. "It's not a fraternity any more."

But while Albright's unlikely ascent commands respect, it was learning about her quiet leadership at home that moved us at the celebration of her life.

World and national leaders arrived in motorcades and with security details to pay respect to the single mother of three who - like so many of us - worried she was never enough.

"I do think every woman's middle name," she recently said to Amy Poehler, "is guilt".

While her fellow lions got their briefings, sipped the coffee handed to them, Albright was waking her daughters: "Up and at 'em!" Judge Anne Korbel Albright, one of Albright’s twin daughters, remembered.

"Usually, mom had risen hours earlier to work on her PhD dissertation, to fix our breakfasts and organise our backpacks," the daughter told world leaders who had never had to do such a thing.

This warrior of the world stage who helped steer America in the post-Cold War era and championed freedom around the globe also sent her daughters notes to summer camp, knitted, skied with them, and took their calls no matter where she was.

“We often get asked what kind of mother she was,” said Alice Albright, the other twin. “She was the kind who called every day. Sometimes twice. My time was 6.35pm. How are the boys? How was work? When is your next trip? Are you going running tonight? Don't forget it’s dark out.”

The cinematic story of her 84 years, a political refugee who arrived at America's shore on the cargo vessel SS America when she was 11 years old was "sort of a microcosm of the late 20th century in Europe and the United States," Bill Clinton said.

Her everyday life - a middle-aged woman whose husband left for a younger wife - was also part of the American story. One rarely discussed in the grand nave.

"Think of her allowing us to manoeuvre a little red wagon filled with Girl Scout cookies in the spring or campaign leaflets in the fall along the crowded sidewalks and cobbled streets of our neighbourhood," Katherine Albright, her youngest daughter, said.

The mood in that cathedral shifted when the women spoke. The grand and sober state funeral that Washington knows well melted a little. I could feel it in the audience. Postures relaxed. Tissues came out of smart handbags, eyes were dabbed. Even some of the other lions began to cry.

There was applause even, when Hillary Clinton ended her powerful and charming eulogy telling the casket before her holding Albright's body that “we will never, ever forget you“.

Albright struggled with the duality of her life, the eternal struggle of the working mom. And she famously said: “There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.“

The struggle begins at the playground, where the moms in heels and suits said goodbye to kids, knowing they won't see them again until the sun goes down.

"When [the girls] were growing up, a lot of other women made me feel guilty," Albright told Amy Poehler, in an interview two years ago. “That’s part of the ‘special place in hell’ thing, because we're very judgmental about each other. So I was nervous about whether I was a good mother or not.”

She's like all of us. Except she was slaying dictators and stopping genocide while worrying that her daughters would one day resent that she had not been there for all the scout meetings.

The deep affection those daughters have for mom, their loving stories, their tears, their own, successful lives, answer all of Albright's doubts.

Albright was deeply intentional about her support of women.

Years ago, she took the time to meet my mom, who grew up in the same part of Prague - Smichov - as Albright did.

And when Albright interviewed a friend of mine for one of the top jobs in her investment firm, the first question she asked him wasn’t about global strategy and impact. “Tell me about your mother,“ she said to him.

After a couple of presidents told the world how to remember, her youngest daughter added one more image she wanted us to remember:

“In her dark blue suit, preparing for her historic confirmation hearing as America's first female secretary of state,” Katherine Albright said. “What is she doing in the waiting room? Brushing our hair and giving us each a Tic Tac.”

America's lions are leaders, thinkers, champions, and, yes, mothers barely five feet tall.