TICKLE MY ARM
From what my Aunt Connie tells me, arm tickling has been a tradition on the Battista side of the family for as far back as she can recall—back to her Grandma Annie, who is my Great Grandma Annie. The arm tickle originates as a sensation of decompression and an expression of maternal love. Almost like it could be in the last scene of a Disney movie as the solution to the family’s problems—the broken curse, cured from an arm tickle. My youngest daughter loves it, and this is without introducing or prompting it. My oldest can’t stand the feeling. Genetic biologists: call me, and we’ll chat. Is it a gene? Why does one kid like it and the other doesn’t and how did she know about it without a prompt?
Here is what it looks like: You shower. You get your comfy cotton pajamas on, and you settle in for the night. When I was younger, I’d sleep at my aunt’s house an hour from my own, and we’d sit upstairs in her small TV room after a hot day outside working the sidewalk sale in Cranford, NJ. We worked at her store all day, right in the middle of a bustling Dickensian downtown. We were full from dinner and relaxed from our showers. We’d settle in on the couch, my uncle on one end, my aunt in the middle, and me on the other side of her.
“She’d flip her arm, interior side up, and I’d tickle up and down with my nail—it’s more of a glide. Now as a lifelong nailbiter, she really got the worst end of this deal. After about five minutes, we’d switch. It was a meditation. It is equivalent to maybe a set of deep breathing exercises in which you can wash away the stress of anything in your system, on your mind. An elemental form of decompression. We were able to carry on conversations and watch a show on T.V., but really you’re melting into the mellow. You’re subconsciously focused on how your
body just…. unwinds. My uncle didn’t think we were nuts. It just was our thing. There’s likely a part of every human being that responds to touch positively, even if it was during a small portion of their lives—a mother’s hand held in yours, a touch of the head, where someone clears away a piece of hair. Those moments when the rest of the world falls away.
Grandma Jo (short for Josephine) had rough, worked hands with long fingernails—longer than I was used to on any woman in my family. Sort of wide and rectangular, rather than narrow and elegant. She’d find a portion of my forearm faced up and used all of her fingernails to scoop and lightly scratch. Not too tickly, nor too rough. When I was young, she’d do this on Christmas Day on my aunt’s couch during our after-dinner lull and digestive blobbiness. Tired and full. Happy-sleepy. As I got older and I’d visit her on the second floor of her Scotch Plains senior building, I’d sit on the floor in front of her and below her—she’d sit in her mustard gold velvety armchair, and she’d do the same scoop and gentle scratch to my neck under my hair. Want to talk about decompression and a feeling of pure grandmotherly love? I miss those visits. We’d watch Giada make spaghetti or catch reruns of game shows. She’d comment on how big Giada’s teeth were. Or how “nice of a fella” the game show host was. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this show was decades old at this point. It didn’t matter what we were watching or what we spoke about. It mattered that we were spending time together and she was using her long nails to tickle my neck.
Sometimes she’d play with my hair, and I’d fight falling asleep. There is no more relaxing pastime than having your hair played with for a sensory kid/teen/adult like me.
Sitting with my Grandma Yola was different than a “tickle my arm” scenario. Firstly, she didn’t watch TV until the evening, as a rule. Secondly, she was a spine rubber. She’d find my spine from the lumbar area and do a rub/press up to the cervical and comment, “Madonn, how straight and strong your spine is. God Bless you.” Again, to a sensory child, I felt at ease, decompressed, and very unraveled by the gesture. Instinctually, she knew I needed this kind of input, and perhaps at some level, so did she. I never asked her. It was pure instinct on her part. Or maybe in her younger years, she liked her back rubbed too. She’d rub my neck because she had sinus issues, and she knew the kind of tension that could build in the human body because of sinus pressure, particularly the shoulders and neck. That’s just another theory of how she knew that it felt good. When my first marriage was crumbling, I’d sit with my mom on her couch, my head in
her lap, and she’d play with my hair and rub my scalp as we watched T.V. I knew all would be okay.
My Grandma Yola liked to wrap up my visits to her Nutley apartment by taking artifacts out to show me at her kitchen table. Anything and everything worth sharing, discussing, enjoying, or contemplating happened at kitchen tables with the women in my family. Sometimes she’d present a box or album of photos of my Grandpa Peter from his boyhood in Italy. Or their exciting New York City nightlife when my mom was growing up in Montclair, NJ. My favorite items that she’d routinely pull out came from a three-foot wooden chest she had below a hallway mirror in the area between her kitchen and walkway to the front door. Inside the chest she’d keep important mail, coupons, random saint charms on ribbons, reused boxes that once held chocolates, and maybe a tin or two of coins or non-valuable jewelry. Her stash of gummy bears lived there too.
The item I am building up to is her small story books with religious leanings. Picture a chapbook or a thick pamphlet of sorts, watercolor-printed, stapled securely in the middle. The mini books ranged probably from 20-30 pages, and they all had titles like “Nature’s Blessings,” “Seasons and Psalm,” or “Ribbons of Love.” Each page had a free verse or rhyming verse written by people all over the world—actual, regular people who submitted their work to this small publisher specializing in religious poetry. She’d smile and read some to me. “They’re so beautiful. Listen to the words.” Then she’d touch my hand and read some more. Like me, she had a thing for the texture of how words were grouped and what they felt like. Like me, she drank their juices, and grasped the groove of literature. Paired with the watercolor flowers, cottages, and snow-covered hill, she cherished those simple stories very much.
After she died in 2012, my mom made sure I got a handful of those books. The reason my grandma received those mini books every few months from this small publisher was because she donated to various rosary organizations and Catholic charities. When I say donate, I mean ten dollars here, or if it was the holidays, probably a twenty-dollar bill. She had a small and specific budget. One that she paid close attention to and used with her heart.
My little one asks for me to tickle her arm. We’ll be in the middle of a couch-snuggle watching her favorite show, and she’ll roll up her sleeve and put her arm in the position I can reach and ask, “Mommy, can you tickle my arm?” The sensory gene runs strong. I have some theories about why we respond so well, and it has to do with something we refer to in Reiki—meridians. How our arms and legs house invisible lines like a roadmap, all leading back to our nerve centers. All capable of pressing up down or keeping us light on our feet.
Currently, I need my husband to gently apply pressure to my hands at night. After a day of typing I like him to find the space between my thumb and index finger and press. Then I ask him to pull each finger gently for a pop. Finally, a gently twist of my hair in various parts of my scalp.
When I have a major headache, I binge watch Dr. Justin Tubio of Instagram give his neck adjustments to patients—the cradling of the neck. Look it up. It’s like you feel your own pain dissolve after a few watches. Don’t judge. We all have our ways to heal.
Elaina Battista-Parsons is a writer of Creative Nonfiction. If you see a woman in Doc Martens drooling over a 1964 Chevy Impala, it’s probably Elaina. She’s published Italian Bones in the Snow and Black Licorice (feb 7). She edits 50 Give or Take for Vine Leaves Press and lives on the Jersey Shore. Her essay “I Said it Out Loud” was a 2021 finalist in the Anne Dillard CNF contest. She lives on the Jersey Shore and eats strawberries.