The mystery writer reminisces


Wait, Spring
By Dionis Coffin Riggs (an excerpt)

Spring, do not come too early,
Wait until the heartwood
Is twisted and made gnarled
By the gale.

Gather a bunch of ordinary-looking people wearing ordinary-looking clothes — nothing that draws attention — and you’ll have made a perfect camouflage for Cynthia Riggs, all six feet of her. Not bad for this quiet-spoken woman who draws no attention to herself, but who is in fact a moonshot away from ordinary.

She was 17 when she qualified for the 1948 U.S. Olympic fencing team. She earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Ohio’s Antioch College in 1953, became a marine researcher, regularly wrote science features for publications such as Smithsonian and National Geographic, and became the editor and writer of Petroleum Today.

Eventually her work took her around the globe, from drilling rigs off the coast of New Jersey to the north shore of Alaska when the pipeline was being built, to Antarctica. She is the seventh woman to set foot on the South Pole. Riggs crossed the Atlantic twice in a 32-foot sailboat, taught at the Annapolis Sailing School, and held a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license, 100-ton vessels. She founded and ran the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Boat company.

Riggs lived aboard a 44-foot houseboat, the Cinnabar, for 12 years. She recounts when the weather turned “downright ugly … three-foot-high breakers, the boat halfway out of control. The wind beat against us, rain lashed, and the fragile houseboat rose up and down again and again. Suddenly there was a sickening wrenching sound. The deck had separated from the hull, and the Cinnabar’s exposed hull was scooping up water.“

While Riggs, horrified, blamed herself for endangering her 14 passengers, it was later reported that a tornado had been sighted on the Potomac River.

Whether it was just timing or the recognition of her lifetime accumulation of noteworthy experiences, the 93-year-old Riggs decided it was time to write her memoir. “Wait, Spring: A memoir,” (Cleaveland House Books, 2024) was just released. Its title is also that of a poem by her mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, who lived until she was 99, and who achieved national fame as a poet.

Her father, Sidney Noyes Riggs, was a descendant of one of the founders of Newark, N.J. He worked as department supervisor in one of Thomas Edison’s laboratories, but found his calling as a school principal.

He turned down an offer to become superintendent of schools on the Vineyard because “he felt it would be unseemly to have students see him on the beach in a bathing suit.” He was also a distinguished artist whose block prints accompanied his wife Dionis’ poetry.

A 13th generation Islander, Riggs was born in the Vineyard hospital, and spent her summers from June to September in the Cleaveland House in West Tisbury. (It was built for the family in 1750 by James Athearn, and named for Riggs’ great-great grandfather, whaling Captain Henry Cleaveland.)

Riggs describes Cleaveland House as one would describe a family member, with its moods, sounds, and history. It animates her memories, and secures its status as home. For decades she held twice-weekly writing groups there.

Her memoir recounts good and difficult times, with emphasis on facts rather than emotions. It starts slowly, with descriptions of settings, history, the perils of the seas, and big and small moments, but the tempo increases as her story builds, and step by step she tells all.

Her first kiss was with Ted Brown, when she was 14. When the romance ended and she lay on her bed sobbing, her mother consoled her. Riggs writes, “She told me I had good taste.”

The family spent June to September at Cleaveland House, and weekends at the shack on Quansoo, referred to as “the beach house,” with its two rooms and a porch, no water, no electricity: “The sound of surf on the Atlantic Ocean side was a constant accompaniment.” Riggs recounts how the children ran around lighting all the lamp wicks. “My mother’s and father’s faces would materialize out of the darkness. A magic circle of light against the night.”

The Island hurricane in 1938 demolished the beach house at Quansoo.

Riggs, 18, was in college when she participated in a four-month work-study program at Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory in San Diego, Calif. The experience included befriending an older regular Scripps employee, Howard Attebery, with whom she played games, like writing him coded notes on paper towels. It was a fine time, and although they lost contact when it ended, she savored the experience.

In 1952, she married George Stoertz; both were undergrad students at Antioch. He studied for his master’s degree at Columbia University in New York, where they moved. When he started working for the U. S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., they moved again. The couple had five children in eight years.

They were off to what seemed to be a good start, but gradually critical problems developed. Riggs endured violence and increasing physical abuse, ultimately requiring police intervention. In 1978, after 26 years, they divorced. Even so, Stoertz’s murderous threats, bullying, and harassment continued until his suicide in 2003.

Riggs worked for American Petroleum Institute (API). She also served as captain of tour boats on the Potomac, and delivered private yachts to the Azores and the Caribbean. She became associate editor for Ocean Science News, and researcher, editor, and writer for the National Geographic Society.

In the early ’80s, Riggs returned full-time to Cleaveland House, where her elderly mother lived. They enjoyed operating a small bed and breakfast there for artists and writers.

When Riggs was in her late 60s, she entered Vermont College’s two-year, nonresident master of fine arts program in creative writing.

Writing fiction was a new experience. She credits her late friend Jonathan Revere for encouraging her to write mysteries. The result was her series of 14 Vineyard-set crime stories, using her mother Dionis as the model for Victoria Trumbull, the book’s 92-year-old heroine. By the time she received her master’s degree, her first mystery, “Deadly Nightshade,” was being published. Riggs was 70.

The last and best mystery: Riggs received a thick envelope from an unknown sender. The return address was coded in latitude and longitude. The envelope was filled with paper towels — the return of the entire yellowed collection of every coded note Riggs had sent to Howard Attebery 62 years before.

It took a while to make contact and to meet. It took less time to rekindle their friendship and recognize the love that had already begun to change their lives. Referring to Howard’s medical concerns, Riggs writes, “It made us aware of the value of the time we had. We didn’t want to waste it.”

They married on May 25, 2013, at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Their romance was featured in newspapers, and on radio and television shows across the country. “Howie became known on the Vineyard as the rock star of the geriatric set,” Riggs writes. Together they wrote the book “Howard and Cynthia: A Love Story” (Cleaveland House Books, 2017).

Howard Attebery passed away in 2017. Riggs writes, “I told him he’d brought me a new life … My life before we reconnected was winter, I said. He’d brought me spring and a blossoming. Those five years were the best years of my life.”

“Wait, Spring” is available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.