Despite being almost a full century apart in age, Mary O’Neill, 99, and Benjamin Olson, 2, formed a friendship that has been a saving grace to them both during an emotional rollercoaster of a year. During the pandemic, the two neighbors developed a bond that was unique and special — one that they both still cherish today.
The relationship began when Benjamin was just a baby, and O’Neill would chat with him from across the fence that separated their Minneapolis residences. As he got older, the two spent more and more time together, especially when covid lockdowns peaked back in May of 2020.
With stay-at-home orders in place, O’Neill and the Olson family both started spending more time outside in their backyards, which allowed them to get closer than they’d ever been in the 12 years of living next door to one another. “I came out of the house one morning and he threw his ball toward the fence,” O’Neill remembered. “I got my cane and I reached over the fence and hit the ball toward him and he’d throw it back. That’s how it started.”
According to the Olson family, it wasn’t long before Benjamin found the perfect playmate in O’Neill. “There was really no one that he interacted with except Mary,” Sarah Olson, Benjamin’s mother, told the Washington Post. “We feel really lucky to have Mary as our neighbor during all of this, and just to have someone who Benjamin can look for each day when we go play in the yard.”
O’Neill, who has lived alone since she lost her husband 37 years ago, describes Benjamin as easy to love. Even though he’s only two-years-old, “he is very understanding. He doesn’t talk much, but he sure knows what you’re talking about,” she said. “He is friendly with me, and I’m friendly with him.”
According to O’Neill, having Benjamin around is a welcome change from being alone most of the time. She has two children, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren of her own, but most of her family lives out of state. On top of that, she confessed that her son passed away when he was just 53, and she’s shared some of his favorite childhood toys with her new best friend.
While she enjoys spending her time playing electronic Yahtzee, watching game shows, and collecting butterfly paraphernalia, she says that hanging out with Benjamin is “something I look forward to each day.”
And while they practiced safe social distancing during those first few months, the Olsons and O’Neill are now vaccinated, and Benjamin will even give O’Neill high-fives! They also like to play cane ball — a game they made up, where Benjamin will offer up a handful of dirt (his “ball”) and O’Neill taps it with her walking cane. How precious!
The Olson family reported that though Benjamin has just started daycare, they still make it a priority to unite him with his playmate each day. Recently, adding more words to his repertoire, he’s started calling her “Mimi,” and is always asking his mom for her.
O’Neill will be 100 years old in December, and there will be a party in her honor taking place later this summer. “I don’t feel 100 years old,” she said. “Age is just a number.”
And as for the unlikely relationship that’s brought joy and love to the Olson family and herself, O’Neill says “I guess I’m a 2-year-old at heart. We belong together.”