Funeral travel

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” has recently been published. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to

Dear Nicole:

The mother of a dear off-Island friend passed away recently, and I don’t know if I should attend the memorial service, which is in upstate New York. I would need to take time off from work, figure out how to get there, and figure out where to stay. It would be two days of traveling, and I’d have to pay for all this with money I don’t have. Can I tell my friend the logistics of travel from the Island are too complicated, and I won’t be able to make the funeral, or should I suck it up and go?

Confidentially yours,

Deadbeat friend

Dear Deadbeat:

Either go or don’t go, but whatever you do, don’t make excuses. If somebody is grieving and you can’t be there for them, that’s how life sometimes happens, but don’t take up any of their time and attention explaining why it’s inconvenient for you to be there for them. That sounds like you’re justifying it on some kind of quantitative level — your need to pay your respects doesn’t measure up to your need to not spend a lot of time traveling and paying for hotels. If that is not true, don’t give her the impression that it’s true. In fact, even if it IS true, do not give her the impression that it’s true. That’s just insulting.

I assume you know that Martha’s Vineyard is not the only place that is geographically inconvenient to upstate New York. There’s a good chance that a lot of people will be contemplating how to get there from places even further afield, and might even require airplanes and rental cars. Such people, and you are equally likely to make it, or not make it. You don’t get a special dispensation just because your impediment is five miles of saltwater instead of hundreds of miles of North America.

If you need permission to let yourself off the hook, I give you permission (I guess — ultimately you’re the only one who can do that, really) but do NOT justify your absence. Just send love, or flowers, or money, or gin, or some combination. You can say you’re sorry for not being there, but the moment you start to enumerate your reasons for not showing up, you’re making the whole thing about you. News flash: Your friend’s mother’s death? Not about you.

Almost a year ago, I found myself in an inverted version of what you’re facing: The on-Island mother of a dear friend passed away while I was off-Island for a spell, during the period when It Never Stopped Snowing Ever. I had to get myself from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard. At first, I was confident I could make it, no problem. Then there was a snowstorm, and I wasn’t sure, so I sent her a text to apologize for my absence. If the story ended there, I would feel OK about it. But then the snowstorm ended and the roads cleared, and I thought, “Oh, good, I can get there after all!” So I sent her that text. If the story ended there, I would feel OK about it, too.

But then it snowed again, and I didn’t think my car could make the trek to the ferry. So I sent her another text expressing my uncertainty while also reasserting my good intentions because Absent Nicki’s Good Intentions were obviously the most important thing for her to have front-and-center while she was trying to memorialize her mother, right?

This friend, who is an excellent human being (I have fantastic taste in friends), texted back that whatever I wanted to do was fine, but she was a little overwhelmed and really didn’t need to be kept in the loop of my decision making. She was very gracious about it, but — duh. Get over yourself, Galland.

Get over yourself, Deadbeat. Go if you feel you can, don’t if you feel you can’t. There is no book at the Pearly Gates keeping track of these things. One of the most loving and generous things you can do while your friend is in mourning is not to ask for their attention, however passive-aggressively. Give them your attention, in person or in spirit. Anything else is just so much white noise.

That’s my take,