Benjamin had no playmate his age to interact with. Mary lived alone and spent her days watching game shows and playing an electronic version of Yahtzee.
But as the isolation of the pandemic was at its worst, Mary wasn’t so alone when she looked out of her kitchen and saw Benjamin and his mother playing in their backyard. These moments marked the beginning of a special friendship.
The worlds of Benjamin and Mary were separated by a chain link fence and nearly 100 years of life experience when the coronavirus pandemic began. Benjamin was 9 months old while his forties sent people back inside in the spring of last year and Mary O’Neill was 98 years old.
In the months that followed, Benjamin spent more time outdoors as he learned to take his first steps, and the two formed an unlikely friendship. They have become playmates, not just neighbors.
“During that time-consuming period at home, Mary truly became her only friend outside of her immediate family,” Sarah Olson, Benjamin’s mother, told USA TODAY.
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O’Neill and Benjamin’s friendship started with occasional waves from afar and they became playtime buddies. Their backyard friendship, which challenges the 97-year age gap between them, was first reported by Minnesota’s KARE 11 and is quickly gaining national attention.
Olson, a resident of Minneapolis, said her family and O’Neill had been neighbors for 12 years, greeting each other from time to time before the pandemic. She said her family would also offer help to O’Neill, now 99, if she ever needed help with anything.
“We have always looked out for Mary,” said Olson. But amid the pandemic restrictions, “We spend a lot of time in our backyard, and that means we’ve seen Mary more than usual,” she said.
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Olson said that as Benjamin became more mobile over the summer and fall, his interactions with O’Neill also became more active. Soon after learning to walk in the fall, Benjamin began running to O’Neill’s fence to bring him his ball, which has become one of their favorite pastimes, the “cane ball.” »: Ball, O’Neill playfully returns it with his cane.
“It’s coming,” O’Neill said, as Benjamin runs to retrieve the ball to restart the game, according to a report from KARE 11.
After that, Benjamin and O’Neill’s interactions started to become more varied, KARE 11 reported. Benjamin has a stomp rocket, which he slams his foot into the sky; O’Neill laughs as he walks past her head. Benjamin also blows soap bubbles in the air, and O’Neill “cheers him on from across the fence.”
“Sometimes it’s just a few minutes, and Mary says hello and Benjamin waves and she walks into his house and he kisses her goodbye,” Olson told USA TODAY. “Or sometimes she stands at the fence for an hour or more and chats with Benjamin or plays with him or just watches.”
O’Neill even brought Benjamin “a laundry basket full of old metal Tonka trucks” that belonged to his son for him to play with.
“He’s passed away, so they’ve been sitting in the basement for years and years,” O’Neill told KARE 11.
Olson said it was these almost daily interactions, which normally take place after Benjamin’s nap, that helped strengthen their special bond.
“What’s interesting about this story is that we didn’t really work on it; it happened in a natural and organic way, ”Olson told USA TODAY. “They would just interact, and it turned into a friendship all on its own.”
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O’Neill told the TV station that Benjamin and his younger brother Noah are “the closest thing to the grandchildren I have here” because his grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t live in Minnesota. O’Neill, whose husband died 37 years ago, said the days she couldn’t see the Olsons during the pandemic were particularly difficult.
“I missed them, I missed seeing them,” O’Neill told KARE 11. “When it was too cold for them to go out, when it was raining.”
Olson said that since the easing of social distancing and other pandemic restrictions this year, Benjamin and O’Neill have been interacting “more than ever.” Olson said the initial local coverage of their friendship, which required the Olsons to visit O’Neill’s backyard, sparked Benjamin’s interest and inspired him to take a more immersive approach.
“More often he’ll be heading to his yard, or he’ll stomp his rocket to fly into his yard and we’ll have to go get it,” Olson said. “It’s really fun for him too.”
Olson said watching his little one find O’Neill’s “first best friend” changed his outlook on friendship.
“Friendship really knows no boundaries,” said Olson. “Sure, 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.