The heartwarming story of how Cynthia Riggs and Howard Attebery found each other again after 62 years, fell in love, and married on the Vineyard has been told many times and many ways. Now, with “Howard and Cynthia: A Love Story,” it is retold in print through the couple’s letters.
Vineyarders know Cynthia as the 85-year-old of author of 14 mystery stories set on the Island, and as proprietor of West Tisbury’s Cleaveland House Bed and Breakfast. Originally a Californian, Howard has become a Vineyard fixture. The 56-chapter book recounts their romance mainly through the correspondence that developed once they re-met. It starts with the coded messages written on paper towels from when they both worked at a San Diego marine research laboratory, sorting plankton.
Howard was smitten with the clueless 18-year-old from the time they met in 1950. A dyed-in-the-wool romantic and then 28 years old (ancient by Cynthia’s standards), Howard launched a letter-writing campaign that eventually won his inamorata’s heart 62 years later. In his first postcard, Howard pens, “You write with such clarity and beautiful phrasing.” Cynthia soon writes back, “It was an honor to know that you thought about me for such a long time.” From print letters, they eventually move to emails.
As their conversations unfold, details that did not show up in Cynthia’s well-known Moth recounting of their romance paint a heartfelt connection between the two. It describes remarkable synchronicities, beginning sadly with each experiencing the death of a child from previous marriages. Photographs enrich their back-and-forth. Howard describes in detail his numerous occupations, from dentistry and scientific research through etching on glass and photography. Cynthia replies with her career as a mystery writer, and eventually she enlists Howard to read and advise about her current book, “Bloodroot.”
The letters are filled with descriptions of plants and nature, an important and shared part of their lives. They send seeds back and forth, and they both have an interest in birds. Cynthia’s digging and composting receive plenty of space. Family history turns up more surprising coincidences of mutual experiences. So do explanations of daily routines.
Food and cooking play a role, too: “Every late April I start harvesting asparagus until it finally bolts around early June,” Cynthia writes. Howard sends the lyrics that Cynthia inspires: “Unforgettable, that’s what you are … Like a song of love that clings to me …” Over time Howard waxes increasingly amorous, at one point confessing, “I can’t believe it, I never want to wake up from this dream. You and me are meant to be together forever and ever.” Another time, “You are unrepeatable, there is a magic about you that is all your own.” Cynthia replies, “I’ll trade you 60 kisses, a very long hug … place and time to be determined.”
Those first missives on paper towels used codes to keep the communications private. The two burgeoning lovers resume the tactic with combinations of letters at the end of each missive or with affectionate words in foreign languages. Soon they begin to talk about trips to San Diego and the Vineyard. By September 2012, Cynthia flies to San Diego for their first face-to-face meeting, filled initially with trepidation, which quickly vanishes. Howard proposes marriage and decides to move to the Vineyard.
Well documented in the media, the weddings — Buddhist, church and community — happened in 2013. Cynthia and Howard’s union easily matches that of Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In these parlous times, Cynthia and Howard’s story as told in this new book, especially precious because of their ages, octogenarian and nonagenarian, will touch the hearts of anyone who reads it. Let’s hope for a sequel soon.