Benjamin didn’t have any playmates his age to interact with. Mary lived alone and spent her days watching TV game shows and playing an electronic version of Yahtzee.
But as the isolation of the pandemic was at its height, Mary wasn’t as lonely when she looked out of her kitchen and saw Benjamin and his mom playing in their backyard. Those moments marked the beginning of a special friendship.
Benjamin and Mary’s worlds were separated by a chain-link fence and nearly 100 years of life experience when the coronavirus pandemic began. Benjamin was 9 months old as quarantine sent people indoors in the spring of last year and Mary O’Neill was 98.
In the months that followed, Benjamin spent more time outside as he learned to take his first steps, and the two formed an unlikely friendship. They became playmates, not just neighbors.
“During this time of lots of stay-at-home time, Mary became really his only friend outside of his immediate family,” Sarah Olson, Benjamin’s mother, told USA TODAY.
O’Neill and Benjamin’s friendship started with casual waves from afar and they grew to become playtime pals. Their backyard friendship, which defies the 97-year age gap between them, was first reported by Minnesota’s KARE 11 and is quickly gaining a national spotlight.
Olson, a Minneapolis resident, said her family and O’Neill have been neighbors for the past 12 years, greeting each other from time to time prior to the pandemic. She said her family would also offer their assistance to O’Neill, now 99, if she ever needed help with anything.
“We’ve always looked out for Mary,” Olson said. But amid pandemic restrictions, “We spend a lot of time in our backyard, and that meant that we saw Mary more than usual,” she said.
Olson said that as Benjamin became more mobile over the course of the summer and fall, his interactions with O’Neill also became more active. Shortly after learning to walk in the fall, Benjamin began running over to O’Neill’s fence to bring her his ball, which evolved into of their favorite pastimes, “cane ball”: after Benjamin runs over to O’Neill’s fence and brings her a ball, O’Neill playfully hits it back with her cane.
“Here it comes,” O’Neill said, as Benjamin runs to retrieve the ball to restart the game, according to a report from KARE 11.
After this, Benjamin and O’Neill’s interactions began to take on more variety, KARE 11 reported. Benjamin has a stomp rocket, which he launches through the sky by slamming down his foot; O’Neill laughs as it whizzes past her head. Benjamin also blows soapy bubbles into the air, and O’Neill “cheers him on from across the fence.”
“Sometimes it’s just a couple of minutes, and Mary says hello and Benjamin waves and she goes in her house and he blows kisses goodbye to her,” Olson told USA TODAY. “Or sometimes she’ll stand at the fence for an hour or more and chat with Benjamin or play with him or just watch.”
O’Neill even brought Benjamin “a laundry basket filled with old metal Tonka trucks” that belonged to her son for him to play with.
“He passed away, so they’ve been sitting down in the basement for years and years,” O’Neill told KARE 11.
Olson said it was these nearly daily interactions, which normally take place after Benjamin’s afternoon nap, that helped solidify their special bond.
“What’s interesting about this story is that we didn’t really work at it; it just kind of happened naturally and organically,” Olson told USA TODAY. “They would just interact, and that grew into a friendship all on its own.”
O’Neill told the TV station that Benjamin and his younger brother Noah are the “closest thing to grandchildren I have around here” because her grandchildren and great grandchildren don’t live in Minnesota. O’Neill, whose husband passed away 37 years ago, said the days she couldn’t see the Olsons during the pandemic were particularly difficult.
“I missed them, missed seeing them,” O’Neill told KARE 11. “When it was too cold for them to come out, when it was raining.”
Olson said since the easing of social distancing and other pandemic restrictions this year, Benjamin and O’Neill interact “more now than ever.” Olson said the initial local coverage of their friendship, which required the Olsons to go over to O’Neill’s yard, has piqued Benjamin’s interest and inspired him to take a more immersive approach.
“More frequently, he’ll walk over to her yard, or he’ll stomp his rocket so that it flies into her yard and we have to go get it,” Olson said. “That’s really fun for him too.”
Olson said watching her toddler find “his first best friend” in O’Neill has altered her perspective on friendship.
“Friendship really knows no boundaries,” Olson said. “Certainly, you wouldn’t guess that a 99-year-old and a 2-year-old would be friends, but they can be. And they both get a lot out of it.”
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