I Found Love With An Old Friend I Hadn't Seen In 60 Years

For a collaboration between HuffPost UK and The Moth, author Cynthia Riggs tells her story of falling for an old friend through cryptic letters.
The Moth
The Moth

I was born on Martha’s Vineyard, and I come from a long line of Vineyarders.

I spent many years off-island, working as a boat captain, and then I returned to the Vineyard and came to live in West Tisbury with my mother – Dionis Coffin Riggs, a poet. She and I opened a bed-and-breakfast catering to poets and writers.

After her death when she was almost ninety-nine, I was kind of at loose ends, and a bed-and-breakfast guest suggested that I go back to school and get a degree in creative writing. So I filled out an application form, and they accepted me.

Somebody told me I ought to write murder mysteries. Two years later, when I was seventy, my first murder mystery was published by St. Martin’s Press. I’ve now had ten published, and the eleventh is on Kindle, and I’m working on the twelfth right now.

Well, about six months ago, a mystery came into my life that was totally unexpected. I had thought about a guy that I’d met many years before. His name just sort of popped into my mind, and so I looked him up on Google, and I couldn’t find him, so I sort of forgot about it. Well, two weeks later, I got a package from him.

Now, it included his name, and when I’d Googled it, I’d spelled it wrong. The return address was a latitude and a longitude. I opened the package, and inside was an archival envelope that had a whole bunch of old, dried-up, yellowed paper towels in it. The paper towels were all covered with scrawled-out cryptograms. Also in this package there was a little note, with a more modern cryptogram.

Well, I had no idea what this was all about, so I looked at some of the messages on these paper towels, and it all came back to me.

When I was eighteen years old, I was a marine geology major at a college in Ohio – of course. My college managed to find me a college job lasting for four months in San Diego, working for Scripps Institution of Oceanography sorting plankton at a research project. Now, I was just thrilled. I’d never been out West before. I was working in a real laboratory. I was eighteen. Most eighteen-year-olds are clueless; I was particularly clueless.

My coworkers were a bunch of guys who had been working sorting plankton for much too long. They were bored, and they were rather bright, so they came up with some wonderful practical jokes, like nailing my lab drawers shut. And I had no idea how to handle this, all these little practical jokes that were played, or talking in codes that I didn’t understand. But there was one guy in the lab. He was an elderly man – he was 28. He started defending me against my tormenters. My dad had been in the army, and he’d introduced me to cryptograms. I just loved the idea of these secret messages, so I wrote secret messages, as cryptograms, to Howie, on these paper towels.

Now he’d kept them for sixty-two years.

Well, I have a group of young women in my Wednesday writers’ group, and I said to them, “What do you think of all this?” They all said, “You’ve got to get in touch with this guy. You just have to. This is wonderful.”

And so I thought about it, and I thought, Well, how am I gonna get in touch with him? This was latitude and longitude. So I Googled it. I found... there was sort of a circle right around Baja California. Now, I knew that Howie had a dental degree, so that was kind of a clue. I figured, okay, there was a golf resort somewhere within that latitude and longitude, so I called this golf resort on their toll-free number, and I said, “Is there a Dr. A. registered there?” No, there wasn’t.

Then I figured, okay, that circle could include the coast of Baja California. So I thought, Aha! He’s on a cruise ship. So I found a cruise ship tracking site on Google. This is all true. But there were no cruise ships in the area at that time. So then I was sure I had it – he had a private yacht. He was a retired dentist after all. I figured the captain had come up to Dr. A. and said, “Dr. A., sir, this is your latitude and longitude.” But that was kind of a dead end.

By the way, I’m sort of diverting, but at the time I happened to be writing a book called Blood Root, which was based on a murder in a dentist’s office.

The next thing I figured, okay, I’ll go to the California Dental Association. And I found him! I found him, and I found an address. Now, he’d been a public health dentist for one of the counties in California, which sorta shot the idea of the yacht.

So I went back to my Wednesday writers, and I said, “Now what?”

And they said, “You’ve got to get in touch with this guy. You just have to.” Well, I figured I could write him maybe sort of a noncommittal note. So I did that. I said, “Well, I just got that packet that you sent, and I’ve decoded the message.” And that was it.

In the meantime the Wednesday writers, representatives of which are here tonight, had formed sort of a cheering section, and it was going something like this: “This is every woman’s fantasy. This man has spent a lifetime loving you and searching for you.”

Now, you need to know a little something about my back- ground. I wasn’t totally off on men, but I was a little uncomfortable because I’d been married for 25 years to a very brilliant but a very abusive husband. We’d been divorced for 35 years, and he’d stalked me for twenty of them. So I was not comfortable opening any doors to any kind of intimacy. And these paper towels were things that could lead to intimacy.

Well, I sent this letter off to what might or might not have been his current address, and, by golly, I got a postcard back, and it said, “Nicer than nice to hear from you.” So I knew I had the address right.

The next thing I did was to send him a book of poetry. I had a daughter who had died about five years before, and this was a book of her poetry. And he wrote back, and he said, “I had a son who died at the same time your daughter died, about the same age.”

As you can imagine, this broke down a lot of barriers in a hurry. If you think of the worst thing that can happen to parents, it is to have a child die. And to have two of us sharing this painful experience... So we started corresponding. And we started finding out about more coincidences. It wasn’t just me writing Blood Root.

And it wasn’t just the kids’ deaths. It was also the Manganese nodules.

Since I’m speaking to a group that is near the ocean, probably many of you know what Manganese nodules are, but most people don’t. They’re knobby little lumps of black/grey-looking mineral deposits that are found only in the deep sea. Few museums have these Manganese nodules, and very, very few individuals have them. Howie happened to have one that came from the Marianas Trench, which is the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, and he sent it to me.

Well, I just happened to have been on an Antarctic research cruise. I had a small sack full of Manganese nodules. I sent him four. I made sure they were smaller than his.

The next thing he sent me was a CD, a piece of music that his son had composed called Cactus on Mars. Well, my son-in-law, who’s a geophysicist, was evaluating research proposals for Mars.

These coincidences went on and on and on.

Howie found out that I’m an avid gardener, so he sent me seven seed packages. One was hollyhocks – H for Howie. And one was catnip – C for Cynthia. And in between he had Leeks, Okra, Vinca, Eggplant, and Spinach.

This was a real romance.

By the way, at this time, the young woman in the West Tisbury Post Office got involved. She would say, as she gave me a package, “Another letter from your boyfriend!”

And at this point, the Wednesday writers stepped in again and said, “You have to go see this guy.”

I had no intention of going to see him, but you have no idea what these women are like.

So I have a ticket to California on my desk.

I’m going out to see him. But now, here comes a question: when I appear, is he going to have in his mind this eighteen- year-old that he fell in love with? I mean, I’m eighty-one now, and he’s ninety.

I asked the Wednesday writers, “Well, what can you do?”

And they said, “Oh, plenty.”

Howie has actually changed my life. I had been pretty much closed up. But what he did was he gave me some very gentle warmth. He also introduced me to a calm love that I’d never thought of before. And he introduced me to a sweet passion. You’d be surprised at what you can do in letters and codes.

But most of all, the thing that’s really affected me, is he gave me back a sense of great self-worth. And with that, I hope you all can find a Howie, or his equivalent.

Cynthia Riggs is the author of eleven books. A few months after she told this story, Cynthia flew to California to meet Howie. He proposed within two hours of seeing her. They were married in the spring of 2013. The Moth’s latest book, Occasional Magic, is available here.

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