“It would almost have paid to be sick here,” someone commented.
I could almost agree. It was a brilliant, clear August afternoon. The view stretched off into the far distance. Far below us was the Lagoon, and beyond it, Vineyard Haven harbor, the arriving ferry, and boats of every description, including the Shenandoah and Alabama in full sail.
We were standing on the grounds of the old Marine Hospital, now owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and the occasion was the museum’s annual meeting. The building and grounds are high on a terraced hill, a short walk from Chicken Alley and the Thrift Shop.
The occasion was also the awarding of the museum’s Martha’s Vineyard Medal to three of us Islanders — the late Pat Gregory, Pat Morgan of the Beagary Family Trust, and me.
Susanna Sturgis, editor extraordinaire, my webmaster and friend, hinted rather broadly that I should adorn my blog with my acceptance speech. So along with photos by Lynn Christoffers and Dan Waters, who introduced me saying he’d been given “a pointless task,” here it is:
Cynthia Riggs’s acceptance speech
Thank you, Dan..
I’m honored to be standing here on the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new campus. My family has had a long association with the museum when it was known as the Dukes County Historical Society.
My father, Dr. Sidney N. Riggs, was president of the Historical Society during the 1950s and founded “The Intelligencer,” the museum’s periodical. His linoleum block prints were the cover illustrations for many years. My mother, the poet Dionis Coffin Riggs, wrote the book “People to Remember” published by the Society, as well as numerous articles for “The Intelligencer.”
My Vineyard ancestors were seafarers. Like them, I was a boat captain, piloting boats on waters far from the Island. Instead of whaling, I operated tour boats, charter boats, and a ferry on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay for 20 years, taught sailing, and made two trans-Atlantic boat deliveries.
I returned to the Island in 1988 to the Cleaveland House, our family home. The house was built around 1750 by my ancestor, James Athearn, and I believe it may be the oldest home on the Vineyard continuously occupied by the same family since the time it was built, more than two and a half centuries ago.
When I returned to the Vineyard, the house was in a sad state of disrepair. To finance repairs we opened the house as a bed and breakfast catering to poets and writers. Over the years we’ve included artists and actors, sculptors and composers, physicists and diplomats, creative people of every kind.
My mystery writing career didn’t begin until long after I’d returned to the Island. After my mother’s death at almost 99, a B&B guest urged me to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing. I was 68 and had no desire to start a new career. Nor had I thought about writing as a serious occupation. Writing a book seemed a monumental undertaking. And after one book I thought a person would surely run out of ideas. However, Vermont College accepted me into its MFA program, a friend told me to write murder mysteries, and that’s how it all started.
The Vineyard is an ideal setting for a mystery writer. With its six very different towns, its assortment of interesting characters, and the constant reminder of the sea that separates us from the real world, I will never run out of ideas.
I wanted to pay tribute to my mother, a vibrant, strong Vineyard woman, so she appears in the guise of my 92-year-old protagonist, Victoria Trumbull. I paired up this ancient and improbable sleuth with a fictional police chief patterned after West Tisbury’s Chief Beth Toomey. Victoria Trumbull loses her driver’s license after she backs into the Meals on Wheels van, and my fictional chief, seeing Victoria’s distress, offers to take her wherever she wishes to go. Victoria climbs into the police cruiser and the chief is stuck with a nonagenarian sidekick.
When I started the two year creative writing program, I thought I might be able to write one book . But one page piled up on top of another, and by the time I received my MFA degree, I had written four. Today, fifteen of my books are in print. St. Martin’s Press has published 13 of my Martha’s Vineyard mysteries. Cleaveland House Books has published two: “Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard: A Guidebook,” and “Murder on C-Dock,” the first of a new series set on the Washington, DC waterfront.
Two writers groups meet weekly at the Cleaveland House, on Sundays and Wednesdays, for me, important evenings that keep me writing and keep me humble.
The Cleaveland House seems to nurture creativity. A poetry group that my mother established more than 50 years ago, the Cleaveland House Poets, continues to meet here bi-weekly. According to the director of the group, William Waterway, it is the oldest continuously meeting poetry group in the United States.
The Vineyard is rich in numerous ways. We have a glorious landscape, thanks to our glacial origin. Our already varied culture is constantly enhanced by newcomers and their ideas. We must surely have the most highly educated workforce in the nation, with PhDs who shingle and paint and caretake summer people’s houses, and landscapers, house cleaners, and shipyard workers with advanced degrees. With our heritage of Wampanoags and whalers, artists and deaf-mutes, fishermen and farmers, it’s no wonder the Island has nurtured so many creative people.
And it’s no wonder our Island has been called the Athens of the Atlantic.
My parents would be pleased to know I’ve been awarded the honor of the Martha’s Vineyard Medal, but I’m not sure they’d agree that I’m the one who deserves it.
It belongs to all of the people who’ve made the Island what it is.
Thank you for selecting me as the one to represent them. I accept this medal on their behalf.
* * *