15 March 2018

Margaret and Maurice never really minded when Maria and her brother played chase around their house, rattling teacups filled to the brim by a teapot always on the go. They loved their grandkids to bits.

Maria loved visiting Granny and Grandad at their house in Exmouth, Devon. It was a long car journey from home, in West Sussex. Walking up the garden path, you could often hear the Heartbeat theme tune on the TV, blasting at full volume.

5 year old Maria with Margaret, Maurice and her older brother, Greg
Five year old Maria with Margaret, Maurice and her older brother, Greg

Grandad would teach Maria card games, or they’d play marbles, while Granny made the tea.

She can do whatever sport she wants, Margaret!

Always wanting to do whatever her older brother was doing, Maria was a tomboy at heart. Sometimes, Granny – Margaret – would sigh and wish that Maria was just a little bit of a ‘girlier’ girl.

But Grandad was chuffed to bits when Maria, then aged 10 announced that she’d been selected to play on the school’s mixed rugby team.

“She can do whatever sport she wants, Margaret!” said Grandad.

Maurice with his grandchildren: Greg, Maria and Matthew
Maurice with his grandchildren: Greg, Maria and Matthew

“From that moment onwards I was known as ‘Grandad’s little girl’, remembers Maria, now 25, with a smile.

“He’d even brag about my sporting achievements to his friends at the Devon Fire and Rescue, where he used to work.”

Although Maurice and Margaret lived too far away to watch Maria play on match days, Grandad would always call later for a detailed match report.

Another special person in Maria’s life who lived closer to home, was Great Aunt Barbie, Margaret’s younger sister.

She was like a second Grandma to me

Maria loved hearing her auntie’s stories about her travels around Ghana and the Sudan, during her years as a Red Cross nurse.

“She was such a caring person,” says Maria “and always put other people’s need before her own.”

When the family drove to Devon to visit Margaret and Maurice during the school holidays, Great Aunt Barbie would come, too.

“She was like a second grandma to me,” says Maria, whose dad’s parents had died before she was born.

Maria and Aunty BarbieMaria (left) at a family wedding with Auntie Barbie (right)

Then, when Maria was 12, Auntie Barbie contracted a virus and died after chemotherapy for the cancer she’d been quietly battling.

“I was heartbroken. We'd visit her every month and suddenly she wasn't there any more. I missed her so much, and still do.”

##Sad news

Not long after, Granny Margaret began not seeming quite herself, although it wasn’t until three or four years later that, aged 81, she was diagnosed with Dementia.

“Grandad was absolutely devastated,” says Maria, “But talking about grandma’s illness and remembering the person she’d been, strengthened our bond.”

And Maurice still loved hearing how Maria was faring on the rugby pitch, during their regular long chats on the phone. Whatever happened in her life, Grandad was always there to listen.

The news that he had died of a heart attack in January, 2010, was a heartbreaking bolt from the blue.

Maria with her very best friend
Maria with her very best friend

“I was devastated,” says Maria. “It was like losing my biggest supporter. He and Granny had been married for 59 years and had been devoted teenage sweethearts.

“Being helpless to stop the love of his life becoming lost to dementia had made him so sad. It seemed as if he had died of a broken heart.”

Eighteen months later, Margaret peacefully slipped away, at the age of 86.

Maria had been greatly saddened as Margaret’s illness took a hold. At the time, it seemed as though she’d become a stranger to her much-loved granny, although other family members reassured her that deep down, Grandma knew.

“Gran’s death was something of a release as she had been struggling for a long time,” says Maria.

“She died how she wanted though, peacefully, with her family around her.”

##A lovely legacy

Maria was touched to discover that her Granny and Grandad had left her some money in their will.

Inspired by her Great Aunt Barbie – and knowing Grandad would have approved of her sense of adventure – Maria knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“Auntie Barbie had told me so much about her experiences in Africa I couldn’t wait to take a few steps similar to hers,” she says.

So Maria, now 20, signed up for a month-long volunteering opportunity with the Ghana Health and Education Initiative and booked a flight with her Granny and Grandad’s legacy.

Based in a tiny little village called Humjibre, Maria found herself in the a peer-to-peer mentor role, teaching them about money, family planning and other life skills. And she found herself welcomed by the friendly and close-knit community there.

Maria with her new friends in Humjibre
Maria with her new friends in Humjibre

“I couldn’t walk down the road without someone stopping to talk to me, and the little children just wanted to braid my hair as it was different to their own,” she smiles.

“I made a lot of friends and I’m still in contact with them, with monthly updates of what the girls I mentored are up to – a few of them have since left to go to university. Some of the families still ask for invitations to be passed to me to stay with them for Christmas, too.

##A sense of pride

“Ghana is one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I have my family to thank for that,” smiles Maria.

“They would’ve loved the feeling of community in Humjibre and how people there really value spending time with someone, as opposed to being glued to our mobile phones.

“I’d never travelled further than Birmingham by myself before, so Grandad would’ve been especially proud of the fact that I’d done something completely outside of my comfort zone.

“Granny, Auntie Barbie and Grandad are never far away from my thoughts.

“Achieving something that they’d be proud of, was a life-changing way for me to express how much they meant to me.”