"Mary really is Benjamin's best friend," the boy's mother revealed. "She's his first best friend."
While the COVID-19 outbreak forced many to go months without meeting their best friends, it gave 2-year-old Benjamin Olson and 99-year-old Mary O'Neill the opportunity to forge an unlikely bond. After finding themselves pandemic prisoners for over a year, the next-door neighbors from Minnesota struck up a friendship over regular meet-ups by a fence that separates their homes. "For more than a year, he didn't see other kids. He didn't interact with anyone except our family and Mary," Benjamin’s mom, Sarah Olson, told TODAY. "They ended up forming an incredibly strong bond."
Before she became pals with Benjamin, O'Neill—who will celebrate her 100th birthday in December—spent her quarantine days watching TV game shows and playing Yahtzee on a handheld electronic game, she told NBC affiliate KARE 11. During the initial days of their friendship, the sprightly senior who lost her husband 37 years ago, would just wave at Benjamin from behind a window. Then, she began slowly venturing outside to say hello to the youngster, and soon, the pair were having regular meet-ups by the fence between their homes. "Benjamin keeps me company," O'Neill said.
Now, with pandemic restrictions easing up, O'Neill and Benjamin sit on her steps and blow bubbles together on days when the weather is nice. "Sometimes he'll get up and grab a piece of sand or a rock and give it to me as a gift," O'Neill said. "He makes me feel good." The duo sometimes also plays a special game that O'Neill came up with early on in their friendship. Christened "cane ball" by its creator, the game involves Benjamin kicking a ball to his friend and O'Neill passing it back to him with her cane. Olson revealed that their elderly neighbor also gifted the little boy with a big box of toy trucks.
"Mary said that she had these trucks for Benjamin," Olson said. "[She] carried this big laundry basket filled with heavy trucks up from her basement. I have no idea how she did it. But she carried out those trucks, no problem." The old metal Tonka trucks belonged to O'Neill's late son. "He passed away, so they've been sitting down in the basement for years and years," she said. The trucks are now helping Benjamin to learn his colors.
This is just precious. Humans need human companionship. Glad these two found each other. ❤️— 🐗 Woo Pig Sooiiiee 🐗 (@meow4marjorie) July 20, 2021
Her friendship with Benjamin means the world to O'Neill as all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren live out of state. While their pictures adorn the almost-centenarian's walls, photos of Benjamin and his baby brother, Noah, have also found prime spots on her dining room table. "They're the closest thing to grandchildren I have around here," she said. O'Neill admitted that she felt rather disappointed on days when the Olsons' yards remained empty. "I missed them, missed seeing them," she said. "When it was too cold for them to come out, when it was raining."
Olson got teary-eyed as she listened to O'Neill share what her son means to her. "I had never known that. I'm so happy they have each other," she said. "Mary is fiercely independent. She doesn't really show her cards. So I got really emotional when I heard her say that she missed Benjamin on the days when it was too cold or rainy to go outside." She added that Benjamin felt the same way about her next-door friend. "Mary really is Benjamin's best friend," Olson revealed. "She's his first best friend."