As the summer of 1976 settled over Washington, the heat shimmering above the sidewalks and the fireworks men preparing for the biggest display ever, Almira Stevenson found a way to make good on her promise to Richard Dinning.
Dinning, a balding widower with a soft smile, had been asking his friend Almira, "Do you know any nifty ladies I might want to meet?" Stevenson, an administrative law judge at the National Labor Relations Board, had been saying, "Yes," thinking of her colleague Tamara Wall.
When Dinning decided to throw a Fourth of July party in his Arlington apartment, which overlooked the Potomac River and offered a clear view of the fireworks display, Stevenson and her husband brought Tamara along. Throughout the evening, even when a fire alarm prompted the other guests to evacuate, Dinning and Tamar Wall stayed on the balcony, engrossed in each other.
The two stayed engrossed in each other for four more years. At the age of 43, after more than a decade of dancing away from the dangers of permanence, Tamara was suddenly faced with a gentle, shy man who wanted to take care of her. She had turned down a stormy marriage proposal from a famous writer, she had dated and dropped some of Washington's most eligible men, but she could not resist this unflamboyant airline executive.
Looking back on it, one friend said that Tamara seemed happy to find a man who didn't have anything to prove to anyone.Tamara's friend Lilla Cummings saw a deeper logic: She felt that in some corner of her mind, Tamara knew she might need someone to take care of her. For in the years he knew her, Richard Dinning helped her face the need to plan for her daughter's future, the need to come to terms with her own past, and in the end, the need to understand her own death.
This final chapter of Tamara Wall's life is in part a love story, in part a story of coping with cancer and in part a story of her final willingness to awaken the memories of the past and call them home.
When Tamara Wall met Richard Dinning, she had been an attorney on the staff of the National Labor Relations Board for 13 years. She had found a job there in 1963, after she had become a bit player in a scandal that cut short her career on Capitol Hill. After the pressures of Adam Clayton Powell's House Education and Labor Committee, the NLRB was a safe haven, a gray and anonymous government agency where the work was hard but the hours were not.
At the time, the original luster of the agency, formed in the mid-1930s to help save the country from violent labor strife, had dulled. In small offices whose walls were hidden by rows of NLRB casebooks, about 100 attorneys would study and write memos on the thousands of labor arbitration cases filed with the board.
For Tamara, after the buffeting and the unwelcome publicity in her year on Capitol Hill, "the security, the permanence of working at the board must have been very important," said her last boss there, John Truesdale.
She was known as a clear and precise thinker, other colleagues said. She was a perfectionist, who had been held to exacting standards by her own supervisors and held younger attorneys to the same standards when she became a supervisor herself. Her words could have an acid bite and her temper also quick to loan her time or sympathy to a colleague in trouble.
But it continued to be Tamara's tendency to keep her life broken up into neat compartments, with friends in one compartment mostly unknown to those in another. Those who knew Tamara the attorney had little contact with Tamara the social butterfly; neither group knew much about her work at St. Gertrude's School for the mentally handicapped, where her daughter was a student.
And only one friend in 100 had any inkling that she and her family had been exiled from Hitler's Germany only to end up in a labor camp in Siberia, where, as a child, Tamara buried her mother and two young brothers.
And while few people knew all sides of her, even fewer knew where she wanted to go, what she wanted to achieve. She didn't seem to know herself. "Her ambition, that was something down the road," said her old friend Maurice Rosenblatt. "She was always a postponer." If she wasn't forced to deal with an issue, he said, chances were she wouldn't worry about it.
She tried not to pay much attention to the past, as well. Her husband Bill Wall had left Washington and his wife in 1960 after a series of increasingly violent fights tore their marriage apart. But for 16 years, thereafter, she did little to find him and get a divorce; she told some friends she didn't see the need for a divorce unless she was going to marry again.
Then in 1976, the subject of her marriage resurfaced. Returning home from work one day, Tamara found a hand-scrawled letter in her mailbox on a letter head that read, "Phillip Luben/Tracer of Missing Heirs."
"Dear Mrs. Wall," the letter read, "If you are [Tamara Wall] (nee Jaffe, I believe) and you have a 17-year-old daughter . . . Cynthia Lee Wall, either you or your daughter or possibly both of you are legitimate beneficiaries to a fairly substantial unclaimed sum of money . . . ."
Tamara was almost certain when she found the note that her husband must have died; she was equally sure, said Rosenblatt, that she didn't want Phillip Luben or anyone else to take a cut of Cindy's inheritance. She knew it was highly unlikely Bill Wall would have left her anything; the hatred between them ran too deep.
After following several fruitless leads, she and Rosenblatt started a search of Veterans Administration records and determined that Wall had settled in South Carolina and had indeed died there of cancer. He had left an insurance policy worth more than $15,000. Cindy was the beneficiary.
About two months after she learned of her husband's death, she met Richard Dinning.
"He was something that had never been in her life," said Rosenblatt. "A reliable, enjoyable, low-key person, a person devoted [to her]. He has got the quality of a minister, but he's not pious or formalistic."
A few days after the two met, Richard hesitantly asked Tamara if she would join him on a trip to Newport, R.I., to see the international flotilla known as the Tall Ships. Later he recalled that he asked her tentatively, hoping she wouldn't be insulted at the offer of an overnight date. She told a friend that his delicacy about her sense of propriety was endearing; she accepted without hesitation.
"Some of the other people she knew ranged from being quite talented in some areas to even being geniuses. Richard didn't have this kind of quality, but he had inner security," said Rosenblatt. "He was soothing, a balm," said Lilla Cummings. Before long, Richard Dinning joined Tamara and Cindy in their azalea-framed brick house on 46th Street, NW.
"It was Richard joining Tammy's life; she was the central factor," said Rosenblatt."She was the axis around which things revolved." He quickly won Cindy's affection, too, and his grown children adopted her as one of their own.
When Richard came into their world, Tamara's central concern was Cindy's future. St. Gertrude's, a school for mentally handicapped children, couldn't keep her past the age of 18. Tamara had a range of options before her, from sheltered homes in the District, which would allow Cindy to work in the outside world, to expensive privte institutions. The nuns at St. Gertrude's, where Cindy had adapted and performed very well, were recommending she be placed in a relatively free environment.
Yet, after years of hoping for a normal future for Cindy, Tamara began to resist the idea of less supervised settings. She worried about the dangers of living in the city and was concerned about the permanence of the homes themselves.
"I was pushing her to put Cindy in another Benedictine school in Maryland," said St. Gertrude's principal, Sister Luanne. "But she wanted residential placement." After months of exploring the options, Tamara decided to send Cindy to the Martha Lloyd School in Troy, Pa., a permanent residence for adults with a variety of handicaps. Cindy seemed to like the environment. She was given a job as a nurse's aide.
Tamara was worried about who would care for Cindy after she was gone, Richard Dinning remembered later. "I'm all she has in the world," Tamara would say. As Cindy reached adulthood, Tamara suddenly felt she needed some sort of backup system, although she was in robust health at the time.
The fever started in early 1979. Every morning, Tamara would take her temperature and find it a degree or two above normal. She was worried enough to keep taking her temperature, but not enough to stop work. In the previous year, she had been named a deputy chief counsel of the NLRB, and a few months thereafter her immediate boss had suffered a debilitating stroke. There was too much work to do to worry about a little fever.
In June, as her boss John Truesdale was preparing a travel to Florida to make a speech, Tamara came to tell him she had felt sick for several days and was having a painful reaction to the antibiotics that had been prescribed. She said she wanted to go into the hospital for a few days when he returned.
"Then, overnight, she was seized with tremendous pain," Truesdale said. She was taken to George Washington Hospital, where doctors found an obstruction in her intestines. Two days later, they operated to remove it and found it was malignant.
Jody Rosenzweig, a young colleague of Tamara, was in the hospital at the same time for treatment of an undiagnosed abdominal disorder. When she heard Tamara was down the hall, she went to visit.
"I asked her what the matter was," Rosenzweig remembered later.
"I have a tumor in my colon," Tamara replied.
"Is it malignant?"
"Yes -- but I don't want to talk about it."
She didn't. A couple of days later, Rosenzweig moved into Tamara's room and the two would talk of anything else -- work, Cindy, the relative attractiveness of various doctors.
Once, when a doctor came into their room and drew a curtain and told Tamara that the cancer had spread to her liver and she had no better than a 20 or 25 percent chance of beating it, Rosenzweig crept into the bathroom to weep. "I didn't want to intrude my emotions," she said later. "If she had cried, we could have cried together." But Tamara didn't cry.
"When they told her [about her prognosis], she called Richard and said, 'Richard schedule that trip to Greece.' That was her instant reaction," Truesdale remembered. She still wanted to take time to consume, to enjoy the present.
As Tamara, Richard Dinning and Maurice Rosenblatt began to plan the trip, Tamara added one stop to their itinerary. She wanted to go to Israel to see her mother's brother and his family. She had not seen them for about 18 years, she had kept in touch only sporadically. But she now decided she wanted to see these members of the Pochumenski family who had survived the Nazi era.
Tamara got out of the hospital in early July and returned to work, starting chemotherapy treatments at the same time. At the NLRB, a promotion was waiting for her. Her one-time chief counsel had retired nearly a year after his stroke. Truesdale wanted her to take the job.
"Her mental attitude was marvelous," Truesdale said. "She was just the same. The fact she could sit there and concentrate on cases . . . astounded everyone on the board."
As the days went on, she would begin to discuss her condition with her colleagues, speaking matter-of-factly and begging no sympathy. She worked through the month of September, and then she, Dinning, Rosenblatt and Rosenblatt's sister boarded a jet for Athens.
"She was still feeling pretty good," Dinning recalled. "Except she'd start having tumor fever periodically. She'd get fevers of 105-plus degrees. But she'd just get into bed and pile up the blankets and wait it out."
The foursome visited everything from tavernas to Minoan ruins, traveling from Athens to Crete to Ephesus to Mikonos, eating and laughing and buying jewelry for Tamara, who still had her yen for finery. Then they flew on to Israel.
Tamara had cabled her uncle Arye Yiftach-el -- born Leon Pochumenski -- and told him to expect her. When she arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jerusalem, she found a cable for her, saying her uncle would meet her there in the morning.
For almost a week, she was squired from one family party to another, meeting young cousins she had never seen, traveling to their kibbutzim, seeing Jerusalem and Faifa and the other spots where their lives were focused. It was a time of jokes and of old family stories. After years of making families out of the friends she met along the way, she found herself happily ensnared by a family of her own.
Near the end of her stay, after a dinner at her cousins' kibbut, Matsuva, her young cousin Oren Yiftach-el offered to drive Tamara and her friends back to the hotel on Mount Carmel where they were now staying. As the darkened car moved away from the seacoast kibbutz and down the coast toward Haifa, Oren turned to Tamara and asked her a question about her childhood. Fragments of her story had passed into family legend, but he wanted to know more.
In the back seat, half-listening, Richard Dinning waited for the terse reply that would close out the subject, waiting for her to turn Oren's question away politely and protect herself from her memories. But her reply was different this time. Dumbfounded, Dinning listened as Tamara's low, soft voice conjured up one by one the childhood images he himself had never fully seen.
"Maybe I ask her one or two questions," Oren said later. "After that I didn't have to ask. She just kept talking."
She talked about the Gestapo men who came to her family's door in 1941 and took her and her mother and brothers away, and of the long train ride from Berlin to Istanbul and the longer train ride to Siberia. She talked of the cold, the work in the fields, of her mother and brothers dying one by one, and of Milly Livschitz, who had rescued her, taking her to Moscow, putting the child's name on her own British passport and taking her to England. She talked of her loneliness in Portland and of her bitterness over her marriage.
The lights of Haifa were spreading out in front of them as they approached the hill. There was no sound in the car except the soft voice of Tamara spinning out her life, looking backward at the days she had vowed never to look at again.
"At the end, I ask her a question. How is it possible when faced with thing after thing that for regular people would be horrible crises, she just goes on?" Oren asked.
"She just shrugged," he concluded, his shoulders making a tiny gesture to reinforce his words. "She never answered."
About six months later, between 6 and 7 o'clock on the evening of May 3, Tamara Jaffe Wall died in the bedroom of her home at the age of 47.
Eric Sevareid, Eugene McCarthy, Lilla Cummings, Ernest Bonyhadi -- her old friend from Portland -- and Jody Rosenzweig were among those who eulogized Tamara at her memorial service a week later. They talked of the life she had hidden, as ripples of astonishment went through the chapel. They talked of courage and of pain; some of them cried.
But it was her daughter Cindy who had the last word, although she did not say it herself. Near the close of the ceremony, one of Cindy's teachers from St. Gertrude's school read the daughter's description of her mother, written more than a year before when she was asked to define the word "incredible."
"On the beach I met incredible. She was 15 feet tall. 'Where is your business?' I said. 'I am a lawyer,' she said. She was wearing a business suit. I know now that strange things can happen."