Last February, Dr. Howard Attebery, the much-loved husband of Cynthia Riggs-Attebery, died at their home, Cleaveland House in West Tisbury, at the age of 94. On Saturday, Ms. Riggs-Attebery, 86, hosted a celebration of Howie’s life on the lawn of the house they shared. Many longtime Islanders, family, and friends were in attendance, including Ms. Attebery-Riggs’ sisters, Alvida Jones, 94, and Ann Fielder, who’ll turn 92 in September. The Vineyard Classic Brass Band donated their time, and guests enjoyed the grounds, with its chickens, guinea fowl, and resident duck sharing the space.
“The Dunkl family, founders of the Vineyard Classic Brass, were Howie’s first friends on the Island,” Cynthia wrote in an email after the celebration. “When they learned he was driving cross-country from San Diego to the Vineyard, they loaned him a vest that read ‘New Bedford Pistol Team.’ He claimed that’s what kept him safe on the trip east.”
Howie and Cynthia’s love story became a national treasure shared by news outlets around the world, PBS’s “The Moth Radio Hour,” and immortalized in a book they published last year, “Howard and Cynthia: A Love Story.”
Howie was a scientist, engineer, dentist, and photographer, a man of many gifts and, in the end, a romantic. He made dinner for Cynthia, left little gifts around the house, gave her fresh flowers, wrote endearing notes, and more than likely, they brought each other out of their comfort zones. They grew together.
Their love story began in 1950, when an 18-year-old Cynthia became friends with 28-year-old Howard at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Cynthia was a college intern, and the two developed a secret code they used to pass messages back and forth in the lab where they worked. They had four short months of friendship back then, and eventually they went their separate ways.
A lot of time passed. A lot of time, during which both married other people, had children, and grew older. Then in 2012, Cynthia received an unusual envelope in the mail. Notes inside were written in code on paper towels, and the return address was written in longitude and latitude. After a little detective work, Cynthia figured out that it was Howie, her colleague and friend from 62 years before. The two began writing to each other, and in September that year, Cynthia flew out West to meet Howie in person. They got engaged, and later the following winter, Howie’s son Mark drove with him to the Vineyard, where he’d live with Cynthia for good. They were joined as a couple first in a Buddhist ceremony in March 2013, and then at a more formal wedding with friends and family in May that same year at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury.
Cynthia and Howie soon settled into life together. Cynthia kept writing her popular Victoria Trumble mysteries, and Howie kept learning about the ecosystem of the Vineyard. Family came to visit, and Cynthia continued facilitating her two weekly writing groups. They bounced ideas off each other and explored the Island, and ran the bed and breakfast together at Cynthia’s ancestral home until Howie’s death on Feb. 1, 2017.
Last weekend’s celebration of Howie’s life was as sweet as the love story he co-starred in, with guests enjoying a slideshow of some of the highlights of his life, and friends enjoying fresh fruit, wine, and eclairs. Cynthia wore a lovely blue-green blouse Howie had bought for her.
“He wanted me to dress up a bit,” Cynthia said, smoothing the silky fabric.
Howie’s son Mark was there from New York with his family, as were members of Cynthia’s family. Mark and his wife Jennifer seem at home at Cleaveland House, just as Howie did.
Mark, a music teacher, composer, musician, and artist himself, said Howie had spent most of his life in California, but it was his time on the Vineyard that was most special.
“After he moved here, my impression was that I had not seen him happier than his years here,” Mark said at the celebration. “And he had a rich, multifaceted life. I always think of it like a Mahler symphony.”
Mark alluded to more of the backstory of Cynthia and Howard’s once-in-a-lifetime tale. “Several years ago, he was living alone in San Diego, and once when I visited him he showed me a picture of a woman with short white hair, and I can’t remember if it was on a book jacket, but he said to me, ‘This woman could’ve been your mother.’ It was Cynthia. He was wistful, and he had to have been carrying that flame for her for a long time.”