My Granny, the witch

Author Miriam Gold shares a story about her grandmother who is the inspiration behind her upcoming graphic memoir Elena, and her time as a GP before the creation of the NHS.

I used to think my granny was a witch. She looked the part: she wound her waist-length grey hair into a bun every day, then plaited it each night as she performed loud gargling rituals. She lost part of her index finger by slamming it in a garage door. With characteristic blunt humour, she said it made her knit faster as she could wind the wool around the stump. She had scars on her face from when a camping stove blew up and burned her skin. All this made her look very striking to a child, but these were not the reasons I harboured my suspicions.

I think it was because she had magic healing powers. She could tell if you had a fever by kissing the back of your neck and she could feel if you had swollen glands by a mysterious flick of the wrist, swiftly rubbed under your neck. When I was a child I got the mumps and went to stay with her. I remember some wild, delirious dreams soothed by Granny’s cool hands on my sore throat.

But the most compelling piece of evidence was that she could tell how unwell her patients were – she worked as a GP in a large practice in Leigh, Lancashire – just by the way they walked into the surgery. Before they even opened their mouths to tell her where the pain was, she knew something was wrong by their gait and their colour.

She did this not by witchcraft, though that would have been cool, but because she knew her patients very well. She worked in the same town for over forty years and was a single-handed GP, meaning she only saw the patients on her list, and the other GPs in her practice did the same with theirs. She would see her patients around town as she went about her business, buying bits of fish from the market, taking her evening walks or choosing a birthday card for one of her nine grandchildren. She drove, badly, in her trademark second-hand Mini to see her patients in their homes if they could not get to the surgery. Everyone knew her and her ability to be a thorough doctor who called a spade a bloody shovel.

To accompany Dr Elena Zadik on her errands was to be in a celebrity entourage.

To accompany Dr Elena Zadik on her errands was to be in a celebrity entourage. To go anywhere we had to double the time to allow for unplanned encounters with patients who would stop her to talk about new hips, show off their babies, or just say hello. Going shopping, Granny would fist bump and high five her way along the high street. (Obviously, no one really fist bumped my Granny – she was far too intimidating – but I like to think they wanted to.)

On visits to Leigh – I was London-born and could not understand all these people in the streets talking to each other – sometimes it was frustrating: too slow and too friendly. At these times I imagined myself not as entourage, but security detail, talking into a secret radio in the hood of my parka: suspect with a walking stick approaching from 2 o’clock. But Granny needs a key cut. The man in the market shuts his machine off at 5 sharp. Let’s clear this zone.

She was, in the best and truest sense of the words, a wise old woman. My book, Elena: A Hand Made Life, published by Jonathan Cape on 22 August, tells Elena’s eventful story, and how she came to gain the trust of the people of her beloved Leigh (along with free crab sticks). She was a refugee twice before she was seventeen, first as a toddler leaving Kharkiv, Ukraine, in a cattle train bound for a new life in Leipzig, then leaving Nazi Germany for the UK to make a new life as a young Jewish woman with dreams of being a doctor.

She was very determined. She had to be. Elena’s late teens were tough and lonely. She was an only child and her parents, who could not come to the UK and fled Germany for France, were deported to Auschwitz. She did not find out their fate for years, until after the war.

She nearly had to drop out of medical school through lack of funds and managed to hang on by training as a radiographer and working to pay her fees. Thanks to the shortage of doctors during the war, even women, even married ones (as she was by then to my grandfather, also a Jewish refugee), even ones considered ‘enemy aliens’, were desperately needed. In these less-than-gracious circumstances she became a doctor, at last.

The deprivation where she qualified, in wartime Sheffield, was terrible. Granny said it was like a history book. People lived in awful housing and could not afford to pay for a doctor even if a child was dying. And they did die. Once, she visited a family of eight where the children had tuberculous meningitis and died one after the other.

The day the NHS was founded in 1948 was the best day of her life.

And so, as she told me many times, the day the NHS was founded in 1948 was the best day of her life.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we got from there to here, with every day bringing a new story on the crisis affecting the GP profession: burnout, low morale, recruitment shortages and crippling targets. Through no fault of her own, my GP would not recognise me in the street, at the key cutters, or anywhere else, let alone notice a pallor in my cheeks. Unlike Granny, she does not have the satisfaction of knowing her patients deeply and being attuned to their increasingly complex needs.

I am so lucky to have had a granny like Elena; she taught me many important lessons. Always carry tissues and some small change. Blocks of cheese freeze surprisingly well. With a good corduroy skirt and sensible footwear, a woman can walk anywhere.

What can we learn from her life? To educate a girl is to educate a nation. Build a welfare state that looks after the weak and the needy. Resist fascism. Do not demonise refugees. The immigrants who built our public services are among the best of us. None of this is magical; it is the world we could have. Let’s fight for it.