It had been 62 years since Cynthia Riggs had heard from Howard Attebery. The two had worked together during the summer of 1950 at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sorting and counting plankton at the San Diego laboratory. At 18 years old, Ms. Riggs was a long way from her home in West Tisbury. It was the first time she had ever travelled to the West Coast but she was eager to emerge herself in scientific life.
“I got to this lab with a bunch of guys who had been sorting plankton for a much longer time than I had and they were looking for a distraction — I was it,” said Ms. Riggs, now 81, at her home office this week. “Here I was, starry-eyed and clueless. They started playing practical jokes on me, like nailing my lab drawers shut, really sophomoric pranks . . . but there was this one guy in the lab, who was much older than me. His name was Howard Attebery and he was my defender.
Shy to make their friendship public, the two began passing notes to each other on paper towels. Messages such as “did you see Don finding an aero worm in his plankton?”
“It wasn’t that long after the second World War and my dad had taught me about cryptography and making secret messages, so I wrote these cryptograms,” she recalled. “There was nothing romantic about them at all. This guy was so much older than I was, he was my grandfather practically. He was 28, and I was 18.”
Ms. Riggs returned to Antioch College in Ohio that fall, continuing her marine geology studies. She later married and had five children, eventually returning to the Vineyard and launching a successful literary career with her Vineyard-based mystery series. She and Mr. Attebery never contacted each other after their time in San Diego.
Last January, on a whim, Ms. Riggs Googled Mr. Attebery but found nothing on the internet. Two weeks later, she received a package from him.
“In that package there were all these paper towels. I had completely forgotten about them,” she said, delicately handling the towels, now brown and aged with time but still holding the randomly coded letters she and Mr. Attebery had passed to each other long ago.
There was also a new coded message, hand written in pencil on a white index card.
“When I translated it, it said: I have never stopped loving you.”
Ms. Riggs told the story of the surprise package to a group of women writers she hosts on Wednesdays. They encouraged her to respond.
“It had a funny element to it and I wasn’t quite sure about it,” she recalled. “And they all said, this is so romantic.”
But Mr. Attebery had only left a latitude and longitude under his name on the return address. The coordinates placed Mr. Attebery somewhere off the coast of Baja California.
“I knew he had a dental degree. I found a golf resort in Baja, I figured he’s a retired dentist . . . so I got their toll-free number, called and there was no Dr. Attebery. Then I guessed it could be off the coast, so I found a cruise ship tracking site but there were no cruise ships at that time. And then my thinking went, aha, he’s rich. He’s a rich retired dentist and he has a private yacht and he’s out there drinking margaritas and his captain comes to him and says, Dr. Attebery, sir, here is your latitude and longitude. But this was a dead end.”
Ms. Riggs finally found an address for him through the California Dental Association. She wrote a “non-committal” note acknowledging she had received his package.
Several exchanges later, the old friends found they had much in common though they had spent decades out of touch. Mr. Attebery had married and had two children, and later became a widower. One postcard he sent was a photograph he took of Sedona, Ariz. Ms. Riggs responded by sending a poem written by her daughter Mary called Meeting My Father in Sedona. Mary died five years ago, and Mr. Attebery wrote back that his son had died “at the same time your daughter died and at the same age. It was a moment right away,” Ms. Riggs recalled.
Knowing her interest in marine life, Mr. Attebery sent Ms. Riggs a manganese nodule, iron rich clusters found 35,000 feet at the bottom of the ocean.
“Most people don’t know what manganese nodules are. Very few museums have them. No people I know have them,” Ms. Riggs said. “I have a whole bag full of them I collected on an Antarctic research cruise. So I sent him four and I made sure they were smaller than his, of course.”
The packages kept coming.
“He knew I was a gardener so he sent me these seven seed packages, one was hollyhock for Howie and one was Catnip for Cynthia,” she said. “The other seven were leeks, okra, vinca, eggplant and spinach.”
The Wednesday writers group encouraged her to visit Mr. Attebery. In September, Ms. Riggs flew out to Santa Barbara to visit one of her daughters, and Mr. Attebery bought her a train ticket to travel down the coast to visit him for a day and a half in San Diego.
“I hadn’t been there for two hours and we went into his office and he had these two little white boxes with cigar bands and said, ‘I know you’re not much for wearing jewelry but I thought you might like to see these,’” she recalled. “I said, I make an exception for rings. So he said, ‘should we go to the jewelry store tomorrow?’ and I said, yes that would be nice.”
At 81 and 91 years old respectively, Ms. Riggs and Mr. Attebery will marry in March.
With the assistance of his son, Mr. Attebery plans to drive his camper from San Diego to the Vineyard, and move to Ms. Riggs’s family home at the Cleaveland House in West Tisbury. This will be his first time on the Vineyard.
Sporting a slender silver band with engraved flowers “for my garden” on her ring finger, this reporter wondered aloud — did she ever expect to find herself marrying at this stage in her life? “No,” she said, dragging out her O’s before catching her breath. “I was married for 25 years to a very abusive guy, very brilliant and interesting, but abusive. After we got divorced he stalked me for 35 years and he was married twice after me. I had the West Tisbury cops stationed outside of my driveway because we thought he was going to show up at any minute. Finally the whole thing ended with him shooting himself with the gun he got to take care of me.”
“After that, I said never, never, never again,” she continued. “And then this appears out of nowhere. It is just plain magical.”
Ms. Riggs offered advice for younger generations.
“Oh man, life is just amazing. Don’t give up hope. This is not what I expected at all,” she said. “I’m 81 years old and he’s going to be 91 when he gets here. Really, how much time do we have? But you know, it really makes that amount of time precious.”
The story of Mr. Attebery’s and Ms. Riggs’s courtship first came to light this summer at a storytelling performance held at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for the Moth Radio Hour. At the time, Ms. Riggs had bought her tickets to California but had not yet met Mr. Attebery in person. The two will tell their completed story together in New York city on Valentine’s Day.
The couple plans to hold a small commitment ceremony in Ms. Riggs’s backyard in March, followed by a “proper church service” for family and close friends at the West Tisbury Congregational Church on May 25. A “huge reception” will be held in July with everyone on the Island invited to the backyard potluck. The Wednesday writers have promised to help Ms. Riggs find a long skirt and simple blouse and organize the March ceremony. Ms. Riggs’s 90-year-old brother-in-law will give the bride away. The couple emails two or three times a day. Ms. Riggs has a five inch stack of correspondence printed out next to her desk, “and that’s only since May,” she said. “I think we beat Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.”