It’s mid-afternoon on a steamy Mother’s Day and I’m downstairs at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, waiting for a glimpse of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Albright, the highest-ranking woman in American governmental history, will not be speaking–a disappointment to many in the throng. (“I guess she did that already at Quail Ridge and Duke,” one woman says). But she will be signing copies of her memoir, Madam Secretary.

The crowd of 300 or so has been sectioned into groups corresponding to letters of the alphabet, which leads to some friendly competition in line. I feel like a loser with the red slip of paper marking me a “D,” until I meet people who are “E”s and “F”s and who dutifully step aside to let me through. It’s a predominantly female assembly, and many are decked out in flowing Mother’s Day finery. An elderly woman sipping coffee at the cafe stands out in a red suit adorned with a thick rope of pearls.

When Albright suddenly enters through a back door without security or fanfare, applause travels the room like the wave in a sports stadium. She looks exactly like the picture on her book jacket–small and prim, in a blue suit with a huge, spangly American eagle pin on the lapel. She’s gracious, but also no-nonsense. There is little small talk at the table where she sits signing books next to a vase of pink roses.

It’s an odd American ritual, the celebrity book signing, combining as it does such old-fashioned tools as pen and paper, and such newfangled ones as the World Wide Web. That’s where many in the crowd heard that Albright would be at the bookstore and, I imagine, where her book is selling just as briskly.

In line I meet Sarah, who recognizes me from when she was a lifeguard at the Lakewood YMCA, juggling her duties there with a return to school. She now has a degree in international relations from Meredith College. Also, I meet a woman from the Midwest whose daughter-in-law is Czech and once worked under Albright. (When she gets to the head of the line, Albright tells her that her memoir is now published in Czech under a different title. In Prague, Madam Secretary is simply, Madeleine.)

While the queue snakes along, we talk politics, lamenting the lack of more Albright-like officials in government. We also talk motherhood, sharing stories about our kids, and confiding to each other that we’ve been let loose for the afternoon while husbands and grandparents fill in.

In my mind, I run through the questions I want to ask when I finally get face time with Albright. Does she think the Democrats can take back the White House? What would be her preferred strategy in Iraq? What about that note she left for Colin Powell as the Bush administration was about to take the reins? Did he ever respond? But when I finally get to the table, I can’t bring myself to break the respectful silence that descends like a veil on a fancy hat. Instead, I merely watch as Albright reads the post-it note with a request for a specific inscription, then slowly, deliberately–and amazingly legibly–writes “best wishes” and my mother’s name.