Gifts | Margaret Dunn

I bought my mother a vibrator.

It’s not what you think.

I was 25, so fresh out of college I still had that new B.F.A smell clinging to my clothes. I had recently been dumped by the love-of-my-life-du-jour, a hippie who left me for a woman already four months pregnant with some other redneck’s kid. Classy. I had moved to Seattle to intern with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and found a whole new world of women — intellectual women, activist women, women who dared to picket Monsanto and refused to shave their legs. It was under the brave, if somewhat fuzzy, tutelage of these warriors that I decided that the time had come to take back my own orgasm. I wanted to be one of those self-assured hippies who spoke about her vagina the same way Christians spoke about Jesus. Salvation at hand.

Armed with bravado and a sense of Xena-like empowerment, I went to Toys in Babeland, a lesbian-owned and operated sex store on Capitol Hill that touted itself as the “female-centric” sex-toy store of choice.

Within moments of arrival, I found myself completely overwhelmed. A kind but entirely too-informed lesbian toured me around the shop, giving me pointers on intensity, wattage, and waterproofing. After the most informative 20 minutes of my young life, I muttered something lame about not wanting to go overboard and promptly chose the most innocuous vibrator in the shop. Plain, simple, it could have easily been sold in the back of Cosmo as a “neck massager”. Red-faced and somewhat shaken in my quest, I quickly paid for my purchase and drove home to test-drive my new toy.

Oh. My. God.

AMAZING!!! Was this what sex was supposed to feel like? I had been doing it all wrong for years! I remember putting the toy down and quickly walking away from it, eyeing it from across the room like an addict, wondering if it were possible to be hooked on something powered by AA batteries after just one hit. Surely something that felt that good was dangerous.

I felt fantastic. Empowered by my own body. I hadn’t anticipated how liberated I would feel. I wanted to shout my orgasm from the rooftops. Get a bill passed in Congress that would provide vibrators to every woman in the world. Throw the Rabbit like parade candy to the throngs of women who still had not experienced what I had only just realized: the female orgasm is power.

In the midst of all this thrilling self-discovery, I found myself calling home and telling my mother all about my new adventures. It spilled out in a rush of breathless holy-crap-mom-this-is-amazing-you-have-to-try-it!

That was the year my mother’s cancer had come back. My mother was this amazing, beautiful, brilliant woman. She was a pioneer for human rights, and a respected educator and principal. She was hilarious. She was brave. She was my best friend.

This was her second bout with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She had been diagnosed about a year after my father had come out of the closet. She had found his suicide to-be note and confronted him when he came home from work. They were best friends — true partners in life. When she figured out he was a raving homosexual, she threw them both into therapy and said nothing to anyone for a solid year, including us kids. Then, a day after my 19th birthday, at 6:30pm my father asked me to go for a drive.

Did I mention I was a theatre major at the time? Did I also mention that my father had once made my sister and I learn an Oklahoma medley, complete with choreography? Yeah, I already knew he was gay.

In the months and years following her diagnosis and his coming-out party, my parents slowly fought their way to a place of peace. They remained best friends, addressing her health and his excommunication from the Mormon Church together as a team. She defended him to their bewildered friends and family, standing by him when her parents told her to “get that faggot out of the house”. He never left her side, postponing their divorce until she had fully recovered from cancer, (a day that never actually happened but was always on the horizon as a “someday” plan). She attended lectures and symposiums with him that encouraged the Mormon Church to rethink its stance on homosexuality, speaking out against homophobia and discrimination against the LGBT population. He stood behind her decision to continue her work as a high school principal while undergoing brutal chemotherapy, literally carrying her up and down the two flights of stairs to her office every day for months. They refused to give up their fight for a better life for all of us.

I had always admired my parents for their commitment to our family and each other. They were true soulmates, best friends indeed. But my young heart broke for my mother when she told me that she had had sex 11 times in her life and that sex was, and I quote, “Nice, but nothing to get worked up over”.

My father had loved her the best way he could as a gay man. He loved her, he respected her, but he had completely failed her as a lover. Her only lover. Ever. My mother had been a nice Mormon girl when she met the nice Mormon boy who was kind and funny and athletic. The boy who loved the arts as much as she did. Nowadays it seems obvious that he was a gay man, but back then they told people that being gay was a phase, something to grow out of, something to “get over”. They had come together with the best information given at the time, she thought he was straight and he thought he could make himself straight. What could have gone wrong?

Back to the vibrator.

Armed with my newfound power of female sexuality, I told my mother about my new plan to own my orgasm and in the process reclaim my body from the patriarchy. After a few minutes of shocked laughter, she began to ask me questions. I could feel her curiosity through the phone lines, and a thought began to formulate in the back of my mind.

“So Mom,” I said casually, my cheeks already pink from the scandal of discussing orgasms with my still-very-Mormon mother. “Would you ever consider using a toy?”

There was a silence on the other end, followed by a startled laugh.

“Oh Margaret, really.”

I could feel her starting to dismiss the idea out of hand, but I was young and daring and flushed with multiple orgasms. “Well you know Mom, a LOT of women use them now. They even had an episode of Sex and The City about it.”

“Really.” She said it as a question. Almost like an invitation to continue. So I did.

“Oh yeah Mom. Because, you know, women’s orgasms are not FOR men. They are for us! And we should be free to enjoy our own bodies. To really KNOW them, you know?”

My mother, the warrior, the feminist, the brilliant, elegant standard to which I now compare myself and every woman. My mother said to me, in an almost wistful tone, “Well, that’s wonderful for today’s young woman. I think that is great, honey. You should love your body. Every woman should.”

That did it. The thought that my amazing, beautiful, hilarious mother had been deprived of orgasms her entire life broke down any barrier of growing up Mormon propriety. I wanted her to feel the same love from the universe that I felt when I had brought myself to orgasm. I wanted her to feel beautiful and special. I made a wild decision right then and there.

“Mom,” I heard myself say in a confident voice that I barely recognized. “I am buying you a vibrator.”

I assured her that it would be nothing too crazy. I would send it to her in a specially marked package so that no one else would see it. Ignoring her, “Oh sweetie, that is really not necessary,” placations, I hung up the phone with a new mission.

I marched right back into Babes in Toyland, winked confidently at the overly-informed lesbian, and bought a second, innocuous vibrator for my Mormon mother.

I took it home. Wrapped it in plain brown wrapping. Clearly marked the package for my mother’s eyes only and then sent it off with a handwritten card, gourmet Seattle chocolates, and a pack of AA batteries. I was on a mission to help my mother by any means necessary. I just knew that if she could see her body as the amazing embodiment of feminine power, if she could take pleasure from the body that was causing her so much pain, it would help her. It had to.

A few weeks later, I get a phone call from home. My father was on the other end of the line, sounding amused.

“What’s up, Dad?”

“Well, Allison, tell your daughter.”

I heard my mother start to laugh.

“What’s going on, Mom?”

“Oh honey, it’s nothing. Your father is just teasing me.”

“What happened?”

“Oh…well. I just…well, I used my…toy.” Her voice dropped on toy with a guilty giggle.

“OH! Well, what did you think Mom?”

“Oh my.”


One year later, she was dead.

After the funeral, I found myself going through her drawers one afternoon, pausing to smell her perfume or run my fingers over her silk scarves. One scarf felt unusually heavy. I unraveled it to find the vibrator. For a moment, a fury ran through me. I grabbed the toy angrily and went to throw it away. “You failed her,” I muttered through clenched teeth. “You were supposed to make her better!” I shouted to no one, shaking the toy like an unwanted baby. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Until a thought made my spine straighten.

This toy did not represent failure.

This toy was a symbol of hope.

My hope for my mother. Her hope for herself. The collective hope of all of us for lives free from illness or pain.

My mother was a warrior. She fought for peace. She fought for love. And when she let her crazy daughter send her a sex toy, she fought for herself.

It was her greatest gift to me.

And all I got her was a vibrator.

margaret dunnMargaret Dunn hails from Utah originally but she moved to Chicago 17 years ago in a failed attempt to be interesting. Although she doesn’t like to brag, Margaret has made almost $5 in her twenty-two years as an actor, comedian, writer, and producer. Recently, she decided to give up on all of her dreams and have a baby, a beautiful boy. Even though she hasn’t slept since he was born 18 months ago, she couldn’t be happier. You can read more of Margaret‘s adventures on her blog.

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