PORTRAIT OF HOWIE: island-to-island mail service

An excerpt of correspondence between Elizabeth Whelan, who lives on one of the Elizabeth islands, and me.  Elizabeth is painting Howie’s portrait.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015 6:56 am

Dear Cynthia,

I have let too much time pass without contacting you, as we have waited for the ice to thaw in the harbor. I have had Howard’s color study ready for weeks now, and not wanting to send a digital version as it’s just not the same as seeing the little painting, every day I’ve been at the window at dawn checking the state of the ice.

Still iced in, with the mainland in the far distance     photo by Elizabeth Whelan

Still iced in, with the mainland in the far distance photo by Elizabeth Whelan

And blessedly, this morning we are finally free. It’s been exciting but grueling to be iced in this past month. Thank goodness for last night’s rain, as we now have a channel out of the harbor to go and get supplies. Like you, we’ve been bound by the ice on the doorstep even while it has been leaving the Bay at large.

It looked as if this would happen last week as the ice was breaking up and moving out (and then back in) with the tides. However all of the ice from Falmouth and the upper Bay then drifted down here, and washed back into our little protected cove. It was starting to get annoying to see other boats go by and still be stuck here. But it was an adventure as well, and justified the enormous amount of stocking up on everything from layer feed and hay to cat food, that we did in December.

But back to your painting. Bill is going to Cuttyhunk later today for mail, and will be taking the color sketch with him. It won’t leave Cuttyhunk until Friday, as the ferry only brings mail twice a week in the winter, so it will take a couple of days to make its way around to West Tisbury.

As our situation dragged on for days and days, the farm became its own little world apart and although connected to the outside by the internet, time took on a different sense and we frequently lost track of the days without the usual markers of ‘mail day’ or ‘supply run’ keeping us grounded. What a winter!

I shall be SO glad to see that package head off to the PO, and to you.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015 3:01 pm

Dear Cynthia,

I am writing in regards to your color study, which I have just tracked on USPS (thinking that surely it had arrived in WT by now), and found out that it has been travelling around New England.

It has, according to the USPS, been from Cuttyhunk to Brockton, then to Cohasset, then to Nashua, New Hampshire, then to Providence, Rhode Island, then back to Brockton, and as of this morning at 8 am it was back in Cohasset.

I have no idea why. Cohasset is usually where our mail gets sorted and is the destination before arriving on Martha’s Vineyard, so I shall check again later today and see what’s going on. It does now list the delivery date as ‘today’, which I have discovered often means ‘tomorrow’, as if MV is in another time zone.

Anyway I do have that digital image of the comp if you are chomping at the bit.

Thankfully the ice has now cleared around the island, and future deliveries can be made in person.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015 11:11 am

Dear Elizabeth:

We weren’t worried about the sketch, figuring your harbor had re-iced.  Now that we know it’s in the hands of the US Postal Service, we can start to worry.  The USPS is determined to screw things up.  Just delivering mail to the Vineyard from the mainland is beyond the comprehension of their automated system.  Delivering mail from one island to another, a couple of miles away, well . . . !

In the past and probably for the foreseeable future, whenever we have a package mailed to us using our Edgartown Road address, the USPS insists on changing our zip code from 02575, which is West Tisbury, to 02568, which is Vineyard Haven.  Since there is an Edgartown Road in Vineyard Haven as well as one in West Tisbury, they attempt to deliver packages to 620 Edgartown Road, Vineyard Haven.  However, there is no number 620 on the VH Edgartown Road, so numerous package deliveries end up who knows where.  LL Bean now knows to override the automated system, but not all venders have real people you can talk to in order to explain the situation.

I’ve contacted our State and US legislators about this, and they essentially shrug.  “Take it up with the USPS,” they say. Which is hopeless.

We’d love to see the digital image.  We do understand it’s not the quality of the real thing, but we are pretty good at understanding what you are wishing we could view.

My mother once received a letter addressed to: “Dionis Coffin Riggs, An island off the coast of Massachusetts.” I still have the envelope with its 3-cent stamp.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015 12:21 pm

Dear Cynthia :

H Attebery color study sm (6)

H. Attebery color study

It is often difficult to explain to people in America how our mail works. I remember upon first moving to Martha’s Vineyard, and trying to tell a client that the ‘early a.m. next day’ delivery option via FedEx was a waste of money, as the package would take 2 days to get from his location, regardless.

I just checked the tracking, no update yet.

I’ll send the digital image and a copy of the letter I’d enclosed in the next email. I look forward to your feedback.


Thursday, March 19, 2015 10:23 am

Dear Cynthia,

The tracking says the package is now in West Tisbury, as of 9:34 this morning.  It DID go to Providence, Rhode Island, one more time…. for your amusement I have copied the tracking info page below.


March 19, 2015 , 9:34 am Arrived at Post Office WEST TISBURY, MA 02575
March 19, 2015 , 1:25 am Arrived at USPS Origin Facility PROVIDENCE, RI 02904
March 18, 2015 , 3:25 am Departed USPS Origin Facility NASHUA, NH 03063
March 18, 2015 , 2:13 am Arrived at USPS Origin Facility NASHUA, NH 03063
March 17, 2015 , 8:31 am Forwarded COHASSET, MA
March 17, 2015 , 8:30 am Arrived at USPS Facility COHASSET, MA 02025
March 17, 2015 , 8:26 am Arrived at Post Office COHASSET, MA 02025
March 17, 2015 , 12:36 am Departed USPS Origin Facility BROCKTON, MA 02301
March 17, 2015 , 12:10 am Arrived at USPS Origin Facility BROCKTON, MA 02301
March 16, 2015 , 4:31 am Departed USPS Facility PROVIDENCE, RI 02904
March 16, 2015 , 12:08 am Arrived at USPS Origin Facility PROVIDENCE, RI 02904
March 15, 2015 , 3:42 am Departed USPS Facility NASHUA, NH 03063
March 14, 2015 , 11:17 pm Arrived at USPS Origin Facility NASHUA, NH 03063
March 14, 2015 , 8:40 am Forwarded COHASSET, MA
March 14, 2015 , 8:40 am Arrived at USPS Facility COHASSET, MA 02025
March 14, 2015 , 7:56 am Arrived at Post Office COHASSET, MA 02025
March 14, 2015 , 5:33 am Departed USPS Facility BROCKTON, MA 02301

Thursday, March 19th. 11:05 am

Dear Elizabeth:

We LOVE the study, the pose, the background, the colors, everything.   You’ve captured Howie at work and the house setting with its books and lovely light and glimpses off into other magical spaces. Wonderful, perfect, even better than expected, better than hoped for.

We look forward to seeing the finished painting.

. . . just don’t send the portrait by USPS !


Thursday, March 19, 2015 11:38 am

Dear Cynthia,

I think this is going to be a great portrait, and an interesting painting overall.

And I will definitely be hand-delivering the finished painting. I will keep you posted with a delivery timeframe, most likely mid-April.

I included in the color study box the return postage, however another option is that I shall be back on MV next Weds (25th), and could perhaps pick it up then. But I imagine the post option will work out fine as we can only pick our mail up twice a week anyway.

Thanks so much, and now off to paint


Thursday, March 19, 2015 2:25 pm

Dear Elizabeth:

We’ve just got back from the post office, and you’ll never guess what finally arrived.

I assume you would like to have the study returned to you. Dare we trust the USPS? Or are you able to navigate through all that floating ice? I went off Island last week, and here’s what it looked like in Woods Hole — not something I’d like to maneuver through in a small boat.


From the ferry, Nonamesset, the closest to the mainland of the Elizabeth Islands, is on the left, Woods Hole is on the right

From the ferry, the channel between Woods Hole and the Elizabeth Islands is choked with ice. Nonamesset, the closest to the mainland of the Elizabeth Islands, is on the left, Woods Hole is on the right. Elizabeth and her husband, Bill, live on one of the islands near the end of the island chain.

Saturday, March 21, 2015 9:38 am

Dear Elizabeth:

We have not put the color study in the mail yet. Will you be coming to the Vineyard on the 25th? Since that’s only four days from now, should we wait and hand deliver it to you ? Based on past experience it may take the USPS a full week or more to do its thing.

More snow last night — hurrah! We are doing this snow thing up royally this year. Welcome sweet springtime!


Saturday, March 21, 2015 11:10 am

Dear Cynthia:

It looks as if I will now be coming to MV on Thursday rather than Wednesday, so it might be just as well to put the painting back in the mail in case the weather causes us to be delayed further.  I admit to being interested in finding out what will happen if it goes back in the mail . . . a cross between scientific curiosity and ‘hope springs eternal’, I imagine.

Speaking of snow, it’s at it again over here.  Large fluffy flakes. I don’t suppose Howie will believe that this doesn’t happen all the time.

Hope you both have a lovely, snowy day,



About Cynthia Riggs

CYNTHIA RIGGS, author of eleven books in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series, has a geology degree from Antioch College, an MFA from Vermont College, and a Coast Guard Masters License (100-ton vessels). She recently married Dr. Howard Attebery, who came back into her life after 62 years.
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5 Responses to PORTRAIT OF HOWIE: island-to-island mail service

  1. Sheila says:

    For as long as I can remember, once we children moved away from home, my mother always baked us a loaf of datenut bread from an old family recipe and sent it around Christmas time. This year, since my mother is living up here now, she and I baked it together and sent a loaf to my brother in Florida and my sister in Sharon, ma. I paid the USPS for express mail! My brother did get his bread two days later. However, my sister’s package left Connecticut – went all the way to Seattle, Washington and then found its way back to her house in MA exactly one month from the day it had been posted. Instead of a substantial box holding large loaf of homemade bread, it had morphed into a misshapen, dirty, flat parcel which my sister immediately through in the garbage. That is my USPS story for 2014!

    Even after all the travails, how exciting to finally see the study for Howie’s portrait.


  2. Your story of the traveling color study is beginning to rival the saga of the Red Violin!

  3. Sandy Baxter says:

    It is amazing how our postal system doesn’t work. We sent our tax information from Texas to Michigan by priority mail. It went by truck instead and took 9 days to get there. We were very concerned that it had fallen into the wrong hands with all our information in it. Thank goodness it was finally delivered. You have had quite a siege this winter. Does Howie long for San Diego? Probably not, as he has you there with him on MV. Love your blogs, Sandy

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Summer Songs says:

    A three-cent stamp used to go a long way, I see! The loss of a more universally-practiced personal touch, focus and thoughtfulness displayed by our older relatives (many long gone) and their contemporaries has been a great loss for society. Value given by each person and the assumption of personal responsibility, and care of the task at hand, seen as time well spent, and care for other people are all hopefully coming back, though, in my opinion. I see it in the younger people all the time. PS How are the baby guineas doing?
    Best wishes.

  5. This cracks me up. I regularly have letters and parcels that are predicted to get there in seven days actually get there in two — but sometimes things really screw up. Can’t wait to see the portrait when it’s done. Elizabeth is so good!

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