I was at an internship the year after college, surrounded by leftover sexually graphic cake someone had brought in from a bachelorette party, when I received a phone call. My mom was crying. My aunt (technically my mom’s first cousin), who was also my mom’s best friend, had a severe heart problem and had been getting surgeries and other treatments for years. My mother said it looked like she was going to die soon.
My aunt loved giving gifts, and she frequently sent me beautifully decorated packages containing all sorts of objects—ruffled scarves, customized stationery by the bale, decorative mini-colanders, humorous greeting cards, cups with famous bearded rabbis on them, and so forth. I reciprocated with an occasional book, an occasional call, and an occasional thank you note. If she only had a short time left, I only had a short period of time in which to even attempt to begin to properly reciprocate. I couldn’t think where to begin.
When I was in high school and my grandmother was dying, I would get her keepsakes I had carefully selected for every holiday: necklaces she could wear to events she would never attend, brooches, and so forth. It took me a while to realize that you’re not really going to wear a nice new brooch to meet with your pain management specialist.
With images of my grandmother’s never-worn, carefully selected baubles in mind, I asked myself: What sort of item delivers all enjoyment you could possibly derive from it immediately?
I searched the internet, frantically pondering gift ideas. And then I figured it out: I bought my aunt a plush velvet and silk vulva puppet, which I had first heard about in college. The cake slices with piped semen dripping onto buttercream breasts all around me may have impacted my purchasing decision. When I first found out about vulva puppets, I had spent a lot of time wondering why someone would ever buy one.
This, finally, was the time. I figured that if nothing else, it would likely be a unique gift—they wouldn’t be carting bales of all the vulva puppets they were receiving off to Goodwill. Plus, my aunt had an exuberant sense of humor…and I had to send something. I wasn’t sure how she would react to this gift, as I wasn’t in the practice of giving family members—or anyone else—explicit puppets. I clicked the purchase button, shipped it off, and nervously waited for a reaction.
My aunt laughed so hard she almost died right then and there. “I keep telling everyone that my super religious niece got me a stuffed vagina…I can’t believe it!” she told me over the phone between guffaws.
Getting someone a stuffed vulva puppet can really change the tenor of your relationship. Our calls became more giggly, her letters to me, more hilarious. She even seemed to get better and got a heart transplant. I got her a second, smaller vulva puppet, just for good measure.
After the heart transplant, her gift packages were no longer elaborately decorated, but they kept coming. During later health scares, I spent considerable time debating sending her a vibrator in the shape of a religious figure, but I decided that was a line I wasn’t interested in crossing.
My aunt couldn’t get over her amusement about receiving a stuffed vulva as a gift and the sheer surprise of finding it in the mail. She held onto the puppet for a long time. She kept it in the living room and her granddaughter played with it. Her friends asked her what a vulva was, and she had to explain it to them. I stayed with her for a weekend once and she couldn’t find the larger puppet, so she drew a vulva on the clothing of a doll and propped it in the bed where I was sleeping.
One day, after I was married, I got a package in the mail. It contained the smaller vulva puppet along with a rather disturbing note: “This is the cleanest vulva in Washington, DC. It has been microwaved for three minutes.”
Why had she microwaved the puppet? Does one normally microwave silk? Why had she sent it to me? It was unclear—perhaps she had also decided that a religious figure vibrator was unwise and couldn’t think of anything else.
The vulva sat on top of our printer for a few years, accompanied by a stuffed flesh eating bacteria and a plush E Coli given to us by my brother (apparently wacky gift-giving runs in the family). We had a son, and to celebrate the end of my pregnancy my aunt sent me extremely tiny lingerie that I will never fit into. When my son met her, he thought she was the funniest person he’d ever met; he laughed himself into a tizzy.
The vulva now lives in my toddler son’s pile of stuffed animals, joined by more traditional stuffed toys that my aunt gave the baby.
When my son was a bit more than a year old he had a playdate with a fellow toddler. He wasn’t embarrassed to have a stuffed vulva among his stuffed giraffes and bears, nor was he confused about female anatomy. He knew exactly what it was. He put the pink and purple plush vulva puppet on top of his head, smiled, turned to his friend coquettishly, and said, “Hat!”
My aunt died a few weeks ago and none of us can remember if we ever told her that story. We told it over and over at her shiva, as if that would make the image of the baby giggling with a vulva on his head spiral up to her. As if that particular laugh would be the thing that would make her decide to come back.