Margaret and Max Sandford lived for each other.
They lived through good times and bad and then, towards the end, Max’s sad descent into dementia as Margaret faced her own health challenges.
Then they all but shared their last breath in a final, faithful act of love; by a couple who had stayed as solid as a rock, through thick and thin.
On May 2 Max, whose first words every morning were “where’s Margaret?” couldn’t hold on any longer for his adored wife.
The 89 year-old died peacefully in his sleep, not having to worry about where his Marg was because she lay curled up in a bed by his side.
The next day, after calmly organising Max’s funeral details with her family, her job done, the 86 year-old mother told her children she was just going for a nap.
And she never woke up.
Simply, purely, lovingly, eternally there was no way Marg was leaving her Max.
“I’m just holding on for him,” she’d often say.
“I’ll leave when he leaves.”
And she did.
Their love was as unshakable and complete in death as it had been in life.
The Sandfords ran farms in two states, battled droughts, floods and plagues.
They raised four children, revelled in their grandchildren and then held each other tight through the heartache of Max’s dementia and Marg’s health.
A couple whose first words when they woke up were: “Where’s Max?” or “Where’s Marg?” — and the last each night before they went to sleep.
The couple’s story began more than six decades ago, when he was a young and unsuspecting farmer walking down the driveway of Echuca West farm ‘Crossenvale’, looking to buy some sheep from its owner Paddy Murphy.
But Max was about to get more than he bargained for — a wife would come with the jumbucks.
Young Margaret Murphy was Echuca born and bred and a fourth generation local to boot.
Her family moved there in the bustling paddlesteamer era of the 1850s and fast became part of the town’s backbone.
Look closely and you’re still able to trace the connection — such as a cluster of streets near the Campaspe River named for Margaret’s father (Patrick Place, John Close and Murphy Way).
Margaret’s first 20 or so years passed in an idyllic country setting.
Even World War II was watched from a safe distance, the only significant disturbance was swapping primary schools when her teacher was killed in battle.
After completing high school at St Joseph’s, Marg worked as a typist in Bendigo and Echuca.
But until he walked down that driveway Echuca had barely crossed Max Sandford’s mind.
Raised on the family farm in Mt Gwynne, NSW, Max lived with his grandparents in Wangaratta during high school.
Like Marg, the war was a distant thing; his only real brush with it came when he and his classmates were ordered to furiously dig trenches around the high school.
“I don’t know what they were supposed to defend us from,” he’d often say.
Once he had his leaving certificate, Max soon realised where his heart truly lay — with the land.
It wasn’t long before he’d bought a property near Echuca.
And, soon after, found himself sitting at the Murphy’s dining table, meeting Margaret for the first time.
Several of Marg’s siblings (who had already met Max) claimed the match was their idea.
Either way, it didn’t take long for romance to blossom, and a courtship began.
Mostly on the dancefloor; where Max and Marg were enthusiastic participants.
Years later, their children would enjoy a dress-up cupboard filled with Marg’s old dancing dresses — a kaleidoscopic swirl of tulle and silk.
In 1955 Max and Marg were married and in 1962 they sold up the Echuca farm and headed for ‘Craigieburn’, near Deniliquin.
There they raised four children; Colin, Diane, Greg and Carmel.
As if being new to parenthood wasn’t enough, those early days on the farm were the proverbial hard yakka.
In their 55 years on the land there were times where there wasn’t a blade of grass, when a sneeze could blow a paddock away.
At other times there was water lapping right up to the road outside the property.
There were mouse plagues, locust plagues and always rabbits and foxes — the spread of challenges farmers face.
But Max had a pragmatic outlook.
You had to hunker in the bad times and really enjoy the good.
“You can’t think challenges won’t come,” he’d say bluntly.
“You’ve just gotta do what you can do until the good times come again.”
And Margaret was there through it all, his partner, supporter, cheerleader through the highs and lows.
A gentle mother and loyal wife, Marg was also hostess extraordinaire. There was always a cake in the cupboard, a weekly roast and regular parties which saw people gather from miles around.
As the years passed, ‘Craigieburn’ also became a haven for the grandkids.
As one grandson said: “When you turned your car into the driveway, all your fears and worries dropped away because Nanna and Pa were there.”
But as the years passed, Max’s mind began to fade as dementia slowly took hold; while the family believed he suffered for 20 years, he was only diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009.
It was a heartbreaking prognosis for Marg as she watched her husband slowly slip away. He was there but in many ways she was suddenly left alone to make decisions for them both.
Despite his dementia, Max still wasn’t ready to give up the farm.
They soldiered on until both of them were unable to do it anymore; their failing health forcing them to sell ‘Craigieburn’ in 2014 and move to a retirement village in Echuca.
After two years of further deterioration they could no longer live independently and moved to an aged care facility in Melbourne.
While Max’s memory was all but gone, he never forgot his Margaret.
And despite battling Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and enduring three open-heart surgeries, Marg wasn’t leaving Max’s side.
‘‘I promised to be here in sickness and in health,’’ she’d often say matter-of-factly.
That was always her way, his way — their way. They may not have expressed their love for each other with flowery words.
But they definitely showed it, right until the end.
“Doctors would often say they couldn’t believe mum was still here, her health was so bad. But she was staying for dad,” their daughter Diane said.
As Max and Margaret’s coffins were lowered into the ground on May 8 in Echuca, Diane was surprised to find herself smiling.
But realised it was a private smile for their good times and being part of the love story in which her parents had wrapped her, her sister and their brothers all their lives.
A smile that said so much more than just ‘thank you’.
~ Charmayne Allison