In a home known for fostering literary talent and housing traveling artists, conversation at the Cleaveland House has been consumed lately with talk about place settings, tablecloths, decorations and flowers. A how-to book on marrying at an older age lies on the entry table amongst works of great authors.
“We’re hoping the lilacs will last but we don’t know,” Cynthia Riggs said over lunch at her family home last week. “I think just those quart jars will be fine for vases.”
The lavender blooms are set to decorate her home and backyard this weekend when Ms. Riggs, 81, marries Howard Attebery, 91. The wedding is Saturday at the West Tisbury Congregational Church.
The flowers will match the blue, purple and green paper table cloths Ms. Riggs purchased from Shirley’s Hardware last week. There are also corresponding ribbons from the Heath Hen in Vineyard Haven.
Joining her at lunch were Lisa Belcastro and Catherine Finch, members of her Wednesday writers group, her niece Libby Fielder and Mr. Attebery. Ms. Belcastro has taken to coordinating much of the wedding details and Ms. Finch helped organize a Buddhist ceremony for the couple earlier this spring.
“All right, are you ready?” Ms. Belcastro asked as she took out a long list. She asked about the status of the guest book, securing tables from the West Tisbury church, calling the town police to help with traffic, and the cake cutter and serving utensils.
Mr. Attebery commended the group for helping with the plans so far.
“I’m very happy that such a wonderful group is doing this,” Mr. Attebery said. “They’ve only left me a few things to do, like find elegant port-o-potties.”
Mr. Attebery moved to the Vineyard at the end of March. Ms. Riggs and Mr. Attebery first met in the summer of 1950 while working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. They struck up a friendship working at the laboratory, sorting and counting plankton, and passed secret messages to each other through cryptograms. Ms. Riggs returned to Antioch College in Ohio that fall and the two fell out of touch. She returned to the Vineyard, married and had five children. Mr. Attebery remained in the San Diego area and married and had children of his own.
It wasn’t until last January, over 60 years after their first meeting, that the two reconnected. Ms. Riggs received a package in the mail with no return address. Inside was a stack of the secret messages they used to pass to one another. There was also a new message.
“I have never stopped loving you,” it said.
At the time Ms. Riggs told the story of the package to a group of women writers, including Ms. Belcastro and Ms. Finch, and they encouraged her to find out where the package came from and respond. Every week the group would meet for their writing group, but before they could turn to their craft, the conversation always started with new developments. “We couldn’t focus on reading or writing until we’d heard the latest,” Ms. Finch said.
“She’d always have show and tell, either seeds or some trinket [sent from Mr. Attebery],” Ms. Belcastro added.
Mr. Attebery eventually bought Ms. Riggs an iPad so they could videoconference with each other.
“That’s how we met Howie,” Ms. Finch said.
“I was carrying it around with me everywhere I went,” Ms. Riggs laughed. “I’ve kind of stopped now that he’s here.”
“We use it for Scrabble now,” Mr. Attebery said.
Over white bean soup, homemade biscuits and salad, the group reflected on the developments over the past year. Although Ms. Riggs and Mr. Attebery had become pen and iPad pals, Ms. Belcastro said a wedding was not immediately apparent.
“I said, no, no,” Ms. Riggs recalled shaking her hand. “Howie was in San Diego and I’m here on Martha’s Vineyard and I was safe.”
“But by September she was ready,” Ms. Belcastro recalled.
Mr. Attebery recalled Ms. Riggs’s arrival to his home in California.
“I hadn’t seen her for a long space of time, and she was visiting her daughter in Santa Barbara,” he said. “She came down in a train and I met her at the train station.”
“With a long-stemmed red rose and a little sign in our code that said ‘love and kisses,’” Ms. Riggs smiled.
Mr. Attebery continued:
“I took her to the backyard where I had a lawn swing,” he said. “I sat down there and I held her hand and went around her fingers. And within the hour I said I would like to place a ring on that finger and she said yes.”
The next day the couple visited the jewelry shop.
“We got her a ring she could garden with and keep on all the time and she has not removed that ring,” he said. “We’re solid. And I have my ring and I don’t remove it.”
Ms. Finch said their happiness is contagious. “That’s what you guys are doing for the whole world — you’re putting this beautiful perspective that a lot of people never thought about,” she said.
“And the reality that love comes at every age and you should never give up,” Ms. Belcastro added.
“Or if you have given up, you might change your mind,” Ms. Riggs said.
Conversation returned to wedding details. Ms. Riggs is scheduled for a pedicure this week, the mention of which made her squirm.
“How many women do that face when you say pedicure,” Ms. Belcastro laughed.
“I’ve never had a pedicure in my life,” Ms. Riggs said. “Just as long as I don’t have to have makeup or a hairdo. Bert’s Barbershop is all right.”