When Cynthia Riggs, 81, married Howard Attebery, 90, in a church ceremony on Martha's Vineyard last week, it was the final chapter in a romance more than six decades in the making.
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Riggs, a former geologist who’s now a prolific mystery novelist and the owner of a bed and breakfast on the Vineyard, hadn’t often thought about Attebery since the two last worked together, 63 years ago. Together, they counted plankton at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and they beat back boredom by writing innocent notes to each other on paper towels, penned in a simple code they’d created.
So when she received a short but revealing note written in that code last year, she was pretty sure she knew who had sent it, even though it wasn’t signed. But the message was powerful: “I have never stopped loving you.” And so she set out to find him.
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“It wasn’t easy because his return address was a latitude and longitude. He wanted it to be that, if I really wanted to get in touch with him I would,” she told Yahoo! Shine in a phone interview from her home on Monday. “The only problem was, when he wrote the latitude and longitude, he gave the wrong one.”
(“I misread it,” Attebery admitted to Shine about the GPS he looked at in his backyard.)
Still, Riggs pressed on. After first being led astray to Baja, California, where she hit several dead ends, she contacted the California Dental Association, as she knew he’d gotten a dental degree. That led her to a nonworking number and an address that dated back to 1988, which she figured would be out of date, but she wrote him a letter and sent it anyway. She soon heard back from him with a postcard.
Thus began a correspondence that went on for nearly a year, and which revealed many surprising coincidences and connections, the first of which was a somber one: Riggs’s daughter had died several years earlier, and Attebery had lost a son at the same age, at around the same time. “That brought us together in a hurry,” Riggs said.
Also, Attebery had mentioned to her at one point that he had something special he wanted to send her: a manganese nodule, which is a tiny iron-and-manganese rock formation found at the bottom of deep seas. “No individuals own these things that I know of,” she said. “But the funny thing is, I have a sack full of them.” She had them from her days writing for the Smithsonian, when she spent months on an Antarctic cruise.
Riggs’s fondness for Attebery grew, and she was greatly encouraged by the women in a weekly writers' workshop she runs. They kept remarking on how romantic Attebery was—especially when, upon learning she was a gardener, he sent her various seed packets, the first letters of each flower or vegetable (hollyhocks, leeks) spelled out “H loves C.” They’re now blooming in her garden.
Still, Riggs, who has four remaining grown children, was married for 25 years, and has been divorced for 35, was not sold. “I was never going to get married again,” she said, adding that, though she found herself charmed by Attebery, she hadn’t planned on going to see him. But when she flew out to visit her daughter in Santa Barbara late last year, Attebery sent her the train fare to visit him. And she went, with reservations.
“The last time he saw me I was 18,” she said. “And I’m 81.”
Attebery met her on the train platform with a long-stemmed red rose and took her back to his house, where they sat in a swing in the backyard. “I held her hand, and within the hour, I’d proposed to her,” Attebery told Shine. “I knew. And she knew.”
As Riggs explains it, “He’s a romantic character, and he certainly knew how to win me over.”
For Attebery, it was the culmination of a long-held dream. “I really loved that woman from day one,” he said. “But she had no idea."
He’d kept every paper towel note she’d written over all these years, and would look at them and think of her with a fondness from time to time. And after two marriages—one ended in divorce, and his second wife died in 1989—he felt ready to get in touch with her. “It seemed to me the time was right to send it,” he said of his note.
The two were married at the end of May before 150 people in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, where they are now living and where Riggs has family roots going back 250 years. Attebery’s best man at the ceremony was his son, a music teacher who lives in New York.
“There’s that word grand that you don’t hear so much anymore,” he said about the whole experience. “Well, this is grand for me.”
For Riggs, who was first married at age 20, this love story has been quite different. “We both know what’s important now. We have a limited amount of time and we’re not going to waste it,” she explained. “It’s wonderful.”
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