More than 60 years later, a love note from a familiar stranger
Separated by distance and time, a couple finds the words to connect again
WEST TISBURY — The mysterious package arrived on a blustery day in February from a man Cynthia Riggs had not seen in 62 years. He wrote his return address in latitude and longitude. The contents baffled her: pages of yellowed paper towels, covered in penciled code.
Then, she remembered. In 1950, when she was an 18-year-old college student, she had landed a summer job sorting plankton at a marine geology lab in California. She befriended one of her colleagues, Howard Attebery, a kind soul who stood out from the other young men more interested in teasing her or nailing shut her lab drawers.
In gratitude, Cynthia wrote notes in a simple code to Howie, who was 28, on the pile of paper towels that sat next to her microscope, breezy thoughts about life, research, co-workers. These were the notes he was now sending back to her. Inside the envelope that traveled from Howie’s house in San Diego to Cynthia’s post office box on Martha’s Vineyard, he added one new message, also in code.
“I have never stopped loving you,” he wrote.
Cynthia, the granddaughter of a whaling captain, fills the Vineyard house where her family has lived for eight generations with writers, artists, and other guests. In February 2012, when Howie’s note arrived, she was writing her 12th mystery novel, “Bloodroot,” whose protagonist is a 92-year-old detective.
She was 80, had been married once, and raised five children, but she divorced her husband decades ago. Now, a man from her very distant past had declared his love.
She took his package to the writers’ group that meets Wednesday nights in her home, where she also runs the Cleaveland House B&B. Most of the writers are younger than Cynthia. “What do you make of this?” she asked.
Two of her friends, Lisa Belcastro and Cat Finch, were instantly besotted with Howie’s romantic gesture. Another, Amy Reece, thought it was a little creepy. Cynthia worried Howie might be a stalker.
“I said after 62 years, I don’t think we can qualify him as a stalker,” Belcastro recalls.
Cynthia tracked down Howie’s address and wrote a noncommittal note, thanking him for the package. “Better than nice to hear from you,” Howie replied.
And so their correspondence began. They learned that they each had an adult child who had died about the same time — Cynthia’s daughter, Mary, of a heart attack; and Howie’s son, Paul, of brain cancer. Their shared grief pulled them together.
They had a lifetime to catch up on. They wrote, first in mailed letters and soon by e-mail, about their childhoods, the books that lined their shelves, their daily routines, their professions. Howie was a microbiologist who had also held jobs as a dentist and a photographer. Before Cynthia turned to writing mysteries, she worked as a boat captain and science journalist, the seventh woman to set foot on the South Pole. They described their marriages — Howie’s first also ended in divorce, and his second wife died — their children, their parents. Sometimes they revealed secrets to each other they had told no one else. They sent pictures of their houses, their yards, and, shyly, themselves.
“I was delighted to see you’ve worn well,” Cynthia wrote.
“You are splendid,” Howie wrote, using her childhood nickname, Cynner. “You will never be unbeautiful.”
They reminisced about the summer they first met. Howie had fallen hard for Cynthia, from the moment he first saw her. He loved the stories she told him about books she had read and the island she loved. Howie’s father had died when he was 12 and he had grown up in a quiet home. Cynthia’s ebullience showed him the tantalizing possibilities of a different life.
But she already had a boyfriend at home, and Howie was too honorable to risk complicating her life.
In those days, Cynthia loved talking to Howie, too, but she never thought about him romantically. He was 28, eons older than 18. She saw him as a big brother.
She had learned about codes from her father during World War II. The simple code she introduced to Howie replaced each letter in the alphabet with its successor.
Years later, Howie wrote to Cynthia about the terrible day when he and a colleague took her to the airport to fly home. As her plane took off, the colleague asked, “Do you love her?” Howie nodded glumly.
Still, he wrote to Cynthia, he soon felt her presence. “I was surprised to find that I missed you no more, as you were with me. How can I explain this when I do not know the explanation. It is like an ESSENCE OF YOU is with me. I am not alone — you are here.”
The three women from Cynthia’s writers’ group began to show up early each week, eager for details of her cross-country romance. By now, even Reece had been won over by Howie’s attentiveness.
In April, Howie mailed seven packets of seeds to Cynthia, a passionate gardener, with a hidden message. He sent hollyhocks (H for Howie) and catnip (C for Cynthia). In between, he had placed packets of leeks, okra, vinca, eggplant, and spinach.
Cynthia solved the puzzle and e-mailed Howie: “It seems to work almost as well with Catnip first,” she wrote, slyly.
By May 2012, Cynthia and Howie were yearning to see each other. Howie had some health problems that made travel difficult. Cynthia’s daughter lived in southern California. She told Howie she might fly out to see them both in September.
“Do you have room at your house for an overnight guest (me)?” Cynthia asked.
“YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, YES,” he answered.
Still, she worried that her now 81-year-old body would disappoint the man who had last seen her as a teenager. “I’m fully prepared, when we meet, for you to think (although you’ll never express it) that this isn’t the 18-year-old I’ve held in my heart for 62 years,” she wrote. “I’ve had all kinds of doubts about the physical me meeting the physical you after such a long time.”
“Of course I remember the THEN Cynthia, but is it the NOW Cynner that is with me. You are the one,” Howie reassured her. “NOW is the person I love and not the shadow of the past . . . but she sure set the stage and what a beautiful introduction.”
He met her at the train station with a long-stemmed red rose and a sign bearing their code for hugs, kisses, and passion. After all the buildup, their greeting was a bit awkward. But not for long. He drove her to his house overlooking the Tecolote Canyon and within the hour, asked her to marry him. She said yes.
The next day, they bought matching wedding bands. They decided he would move to her house on the Vineyard, even though he had never been east of Chicago. In March, he drove cross-country in a camper with his son, Mark.
Soon after he arrived, he and Cynthia were joined in a Buddhist commitment ceremony in her yard, celebrating with a few friends. In May 2013, they married at the West Tisbury Congregational Church with family and friends. This summer, they took a paddlewheeler down the Mississippi River for their honeymoon.
Howie and Cynthia eat every dinner by candlelight, and in warm weather, every lunch on the porch swing. On Valentine’s Day, she found paper hearts scattered in the utensil drawer and around the house. One morning this summer, he wrote “I love you” on the peel of her breakfast banana.
Sometimes when they come upon one another in the ancient house, they greet as if they had been separated for a week. “Howie!” Cynthia says in a voice she uses only for him, and all 6 feet of her softens.
“We realize we have limited time,” Cynthia says. Howie wears nitroglycerine patches for his ailing heart. “It’s unrealistic to think too far ahead. And so all the things that would have bothered me as a young woman don’t bother me anymore.”
Did Howie fall in love with Cynthia when she was 18 and secret away that love for 62 years? Or did he nurse the memory of an infatuation that blazed into love once they found each other again?
“When you look at a person, you sort of get a double image,” Howie says. “I’ve never lost those first impressions in those early months with her. But then again, love, if it could bloom, it bloomed more when I reconnected with her.”