A fairytale romance for a Martha’s Vineyard mystery writer

Lynn Christoffers

Vineyard author Cynthia Riggs found love later in life. At the age of 80, decades after divorcing her first husband, she reconnected with a man from her distant past.

She and her current fiancé, 91-year-old Howard Attebery, worked together at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego when she was just 18 years old. They had not communicated with each other for 63 years when, last spring, they were reunited and, after a very short courtship, got engaged.

Their story is one of lifelong devotion, amazing coincidence, and some very romantic gestures — the stuff of a fairytale romance. It also involves the solving of a mystery, which makes perfect sense given that Ms. Riggs is the author of 11 mystery books set on the Vineyard.

Last August, Ms. Riggs told her unusual love story as part of a storytelling event at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. The event was sponsored by NPR’s Moth Radio Hour and aired live on public radio stations around the country. Ms. Riggs was the sole Vineyard representative among a lineup of people from all over the country who related interesting anecdotes from their lives in a polished and entertaining manner. The West Tisbury novelist received a standing ovation for her funny and touching love story and was invited for a repeat performance in New York City. She will be one of four people who will tell stories this Friday, Feb. 15, in a program called Laws of Attraction: Stories of Chemistry.

Of the Union Chapel performance, Ms. Riggs says, “I’ve done an awful lot of public speaking but never in such a personal manner like that where you’re baring your chest to a group of strangers. Here was an audience that was so accepting.”

Last September when The Moth contacted her about the New York City event, she was happy to participate, “I got a call from them asking if I be willing to tell it before a New York audience and I said, ‘Sure. I’m a ham.'”

Throughout a long and varied career, Ms. Riggs took part in Antarctic research for the Smithsonian Institution and edited a book for the National Geographic. Her public speaking experience includes talking on behalf of a former employer, a major American petroleum corporation, and relating Vineyard history to cruise ship passengers.

“I love audiences,” Ms. Riggs says. “I used to have stage fright. Then I realized that it’s up to the person on the stage to make the audience feel comfortable. You’re sort of like a hostess. Your audience is feeling uncomfortable for you until you put them at ease.”

Last summer when Ms. Riggs related her love story for the crowd, the audience was left hanging. At that point the couple’s relationship was developing entirely through mail, email, and phone conversations, although Ms. Riggs was scheduled to make a trip to San Diego where she would be meeting Mr. Attebery in person for the first time in six decades.

Since August, there have been a number of developments in the romance. The two enjoyed a magical reunion and are now engaged to be married this summer on the Vineyard. Mr. Attebery will move into the Cleaveland House, the historic farmhouse that Ms. Riggs has occupied and run as a B&B for artists and writers for many years.

Mr. Attebery’s resumé is as eclectic as his fiancé’s. He has variously worked in public health, pediatric dentistry, photography, and as a researcher in microbiology and other fields. Throughout the course of two marriages and many career changes, Mr. Attebery remained devoted to his former friend and co-worker. She, too, always fondly recalled their friendship and both, by sheer coincidence, attempted to establish contact around the same time last year.

Little did Ms. Riggs know that she had been the continuing object of affection for a man 3,000 miles away. “I asked him fairly recently, ‘What were you doing all those years?” she said. “‘How was I involved in your life?’ He told me, ‘I’d say good night to you every night.'”