Mother Figure

My mom was a high-profile bureaucrat with a gift for storytelling. I'm now discovering that many of those stories were true.

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It’s never easy to figure out what people in the D.C. bureaucracy machine do for a living beneath the superficial titles they carry. So it was with my mom, a microbiologist who held the titles of “Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army” and “Acting Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment” during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton years.

My dad worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation. My parents were classic Beltway insiders. A lot of their conversations at the dinner table went over my head as a kid.

For the most part, the mother I knew growing up in Arlington was just a busy working mom with a job I didn’t understand. A protégé of hers once told my sister and me that she was one of the top-ranked female scientists at the Pentagon. I had no idea what that meant. To me, the Pentagon was a big building full of military officials. On the rare occasion that I visited her at work, she would be typing at a computer, just like other people. The only difference was that she had her own spacious office.

As an adult, I’m discovering how much of a big deal she was. A couple years ago, when the 2019 television miniseries Chernobyl came out, she told us a remarkable story about touring the fallout in Ukraine in the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear disaster. 

Last year’s Top Gun sequel unearthed another revelation—about the time she was invited to inspect an aircraft carrier and was the only woman out of a thousand or so on board. 

At one point, my mother worked in a laboratory helmed by molecular biologist James Watson—one of the two scientists recognized as having discovered the double-helix structure of DNA—before she used her scientific expertise to transition to roles in government. Several promotions later, she was overseeing U.S. Army research labs around the country.

My mom is full of stories, and of course a good storyteller likes to embellish. My sister and I have, at times, been skeptical of her claims, taking them for a less supernatural version of the tall tales in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish. 

In retrospect, I see that her ability to hold a crowd with a good story probably went hand in hand with her career success. She always projected a sense of authority and confidence. I imagine that swagger is partly what allowed her to rise above the proverbial glass ceiling. 

Born in the Middle East, my mother moved several times to escape poverty. She spent a dozen years in Germany before coming to the U.S. as a Ph.D. candidate in 1970. Being an immigrant and outsider could not have been easy. But since her least-favorite activity is being psychoanalyzed, I can only assume those life experiences contributed to her fierce ambition. 

As a career woman, she had an incredible circle of friends. She hung out with General Patton’s niece, the wife of the Israeli ambassador and the daughter of the U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. Her mentors were Nobel Prize winners. Her close friend Ananda Chakrabarty was the first person to patent a genetically engineered microorganism. (How’s that for a cocktail party response to “What do you do for a living”?) The 1980 Supreme Court case that preserved Chakrabarty’s patent was one of the most famous of its era.

As a child, the idea that women were being held down in the workplace was lost on me. Admittedly, I had a small sample.

There were times when I wished she were more like other moms. Don’t get me wrong—if I was in trouble or injured, she would dutifully drop whatever she was doing and come to my rescue. But she never joined the PTA, and she wasn’t hip to what clothes to buy for us kids, which didn’t get me off to the best start in elementary school. 

In middle school, I was one of many outsiders targeted by a neighborhood bully on the bus. I sometimes wonder whether I might have had immunity if my parents had been friends with his parents.

Ironically, my dad—also a lifelong government employee with plenty of achievements, minus the lofty titles—worked longer hours than my mom. Both parents strived to make it to my extracurricular activities to the degree that their schedules allowed, but I always got more queries from my peers about my absentee mom. Some wondered aloud if my dad felt outranked. 

My mom’s intersection with feminism was complicated. She was successful, but she didn’t love affirmative action. Without it, she always said, her husband would have gotten more promotions, and we would have had a higher household income.

Now retired, she’s become more like the PTA parents I once coveted, moving in social circles closer to home. During the pandemic, she grew especially close to her neighbors and her peers at the swimming pool. One of her new friends is my former seventh-grade gym teacher. She volunteers at the airport with the mother of one of my former K-12 classmates. 

Still, she’s a hard act to follow. In 2009, shortly after I graduated from college, I held a brief stint at the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Logistics Agency. It was exciting, at first, to wear a security badge, but I left three months later, feeling disillusioned by the government bureaucracy and all its titles.

My mom was a big deal, but that’s not what makes me proud of her. Rather, it’s how she went about her life and her work, with dedication and purpose. To me, her capable self-assurance would be inspiring no matter where she was on an organizational chart.

Orrin Konheim is a primary document researcher who moonlights as a journalist. Follow him on YouTube and Twitter @okonh0wp.

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