Stars among us: Howard Attebery and Cynthia Riggs

Filmmakers are working on their love story.


Cynthia Riggs never expected Howard (“Howie”) Attebery to come back into her life 60-plus years after meeting him. But he did. And the rest, as they say, is history. To catch you up to speed, Cynthia, a born and raised generational Islander, was an 18-year-old college student doing a work-study program in a lab out in California when she first met Howie, who was 10 years older. He was kind to her, and not like the rest of the men in the lab. He had a Jeep, she remembers, and they would go off exploring sometimes.

They met in 1950 through a co-op job she participated in at Antioch College. Cynthia went to San Diego to Scripps Institution of Oceanography at Point Loma for a four-month-long assignment. She’d never been west of Ohio.

“He seemed so much older than me,” Cynthia remembers. “I was an 18-year-old clueless kid who’d gotten this job at Scripps, and he was this nice guy who I thought was like a brother.”

Howie might tell the story differently. Apparently he thought she was a vision when he first met her, and more importantly, he never, ever forgot her.

“He was in the lab sorting plankton, and this ‘vision of loveliness’ came through the door,” Cynthia tells the story, “but this vision was six feet tall and scrawny, and she rolled up her hair in rags … and I had very thick glasses.”

Fast-forward to early 2012, and we see Howie finally acting on his unrequited love when he sends Cynthia a package that contained messages written on some very old paper towels — all in code. He had saved those paper towels for 62 years. He had found her and sent them to her. The code came back to Cynthia as she reread messages she had sent. She was a little embarrassed at the tone of her decades-old notes as she read them, but the real clincher was that Howard had included a new note in the same code on a 3 x 5 card; translated, it read, “I have never stopped loving you. Howard.”

The ironic piece is that just before this, Cynthia had tried Googling Howard, but had spelled his last name wrong. She thought surely he couldn’t have known this when she received his package shortly after. They began communicating back and forth, Howie in California and Cynthia on the Vineyard. They learned a lot about each other, and for Cynthia, warm affection grew into love. She eventually made her way west for a visit, and found the letters between them were genuine. Howie and his son made the trip to the Vineyard, and here Howie and Cynthia were married at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury in 2013, after first having a Buddhist ceremony to align with Howie’s philosophy.

By all accounts, they lived a life filled with love, and embraced all the simple things that we all love on the Island. Howie died in 2017 where they had made their home, at Cleaveland House in West Tisbury. They wrote a book together titled “Howard and Cynthia: A Love Story” and their story was shared on television, and on NPR with “The Moth Radio Hour.” The appeal of their love story, Cynthia told me recently, is because it gives people hope.

“They see this really hot romance between these people in their 80s and 90s, and they think they may have more time than they thought. If you see someone your grandmother’s age carrying on a romance, it’s encouraging. Why not?”

Messages back and forth highlighted in their book magnify their captivating connection. Howie, in his early 90s at the time, writes as if he’s a much younger man in the midst of a passionate love affair.

“You write with such clarity and beautiful phrasing. I feel so small in my writings. The few good words that I know get stuck somewhere in my head, and do not want to come out …” He often signed his letters to Cynthia, “You are much loved.”

Islanders likely remember hearing about their story, but now, we’ll get another chance to see it play out — this time in a film starring Diane Ladd as Cynthia, and an as-yet-to-be-determined actor as Howie. The film opportunity began a while ago when filmmaker Damián Romay reached out to Cynthia about the story. She wasn’t ready to move forward with it, so it languished for a bit. But Romay never gave up on the idea of bringing their story to the screen after first hearing Cynthia tell the story on “The Moth.” Romay writes, directs, and produces movies, more than 50 so far. He was persuasive, and kept trying after their plans to meet at Cleaveland House fell through more than a year ago. Finally in mid-August this summer, he arrived on the Vineyard with his wife, and met Cynthia. They are in the works now to get this film made.

“I was working on a movie that I was going to do for Diane Ladd, and when I heard the story, I thought it would be a wonderful movie to do with Diane, then I shared the story with Diane and I told her this idea, and she liked it too,” Romay said via a phone call.

He actually had to track Cynthia down, because she had left the Island and was staying with her daughter out in Santa Barbara. Romay said he tracked her down through Richard Paradise at the Film Center, and Cynthia’s friend Lynn Christoffers.

Romay says they’ve been working on the script, and they’re getting close to having something they can show to financial backers. He feels pretty much the same way Cynthia does about the love story.

“You know, I think that it is a story that gives people hope, and for me, the message that it is never too late to fall in love,” Romay says. “Both Diane and Cynthia are two incredible women. It’s so incredible that Diane is almost 88 and Cynthia’s in her 90s now. I see people every day in their 60s and 70s, and they have no life in them. There’s really nothing wrong with them, but their mindset is that when you reach a certain age, your life is over. They both have so many projects and ideas, and such a joy for life. So I want to share that story. It’s an important story the world has to hear.”

I asked Cynthia what Howie would think about all of this.

“He was not shy, but certainly reticent,” she said. “He was very accepting of all of this. He was willing to go along with it; whatever I did was all right with him. That was the best five years of my life … so far. He was a Buddhist by philosophy, so he was so accepting, and there was never a possibility of any kind of argument because he was so accepting.”

Howie and Cynthia enjoyed those five years together immensely, and in those years, they mirrored to the rest of us what love can look like.

Howie was a true romantic, leaving Cynthia little notes in the silverware drawer or next to the coffeepot.

“He was so bright and so interested in everything, and he was such a romantic,” Cynthia says. “He brought all these little touches of thoughtfulness here and there. I’ve had this little thing I’ve saved for years; it was just a note by the coffeepot. ‘Good morning wife.’ I still have that. I’d open a drawer, and there’d be a little note. He grew strawberries, and the first strawberry he cut in half so that it made two hearts.”

Hopefully, before long we’ll all be able to experience that love story again, because it’s a story that never grows old.



  1. A great article, a beautiful and intriguing story. It left me wanting to hear more. Much better than any fictional romance. Everything has seemed beyond bleak as of late. This was a breath of fresh air.

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