“We just get along well together,” said O’Neill, 99, who is flattered by all the attention their unlikely friendship is suddenly getting.
Starting around 10 a.m., the pair typically spend several hours together per day, and O’Neill often loses track of time as they sit side by side on her porch steps, giggling and blowing bubbles. Benjamin recently learned how to open and close her gate on his own.
Their friendship started the way most do: with small talk. In their case, though, O’Neill did all the talking and Benjamin responded with a few head shakes and some baby babble. Still, they quickly formed an attachment.
In O’Neill, Benjamin found a pandemic playmate. In Benjamin, O’Neill found a needed quarantine companion.
Their bond deepened at the peak of the shutdown in May last year, when both were confined to their respective Minneapolis homes, which are next door to each other and share a fence. Benjamin lives with his parents and younger brother, Noah, while O’Neill lives on her own — as she has since she lost her husband 37 years ago.
With nowhere to go and no one to see, O’Neill started spending more time getting fresh air in her backyard. On the opposite side of the fence, the Olson family did the same.
Although they’ve been neighbors for 12 years, “we started spending a lot more time together during quarantine,” said Sarah Olson, 36, Benjamin’s mother. In a matter of weeks, O’Neill became Benjamin’s very first friend.
“There was really no one that he interacted with except Mary,” Olson said. “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.”
While Benjamin certainly wasn’t O’Neill’s first friend, she now considers him a beloved buddy. Their bond came naturally, she said. After all, “it’s hard not to love him.”
Despite Benjamin’s age, “He is very understanding. He doesn’t talk much, but he sure knows what you’re talking about,” O’Neill said. “He is friendly with me, and I’m friendly with him.”
For decades, O’Neill worked in the clerical department of a computer company, before retiring at 63. Now, she fills most of her time playing electronic Yahtzee, watching game shows on television and collecting butterfly paraphernalia.
O’Neill is used to being alone, she said. Although the nonagenarian has two children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, most of her family members live out of state.
While she has many hobbies that keep her busy, if not for her friendship with Benjamin, the months of persistent pandemic-induced isolation “would have been a lot lonelier. I wouldn’t have had anything to do,” she said.
Playing with Benjamin is “something I look forward to each day,” she added.
The pair engage in various activities together, including cane ball, the socially distanced game they created.
“I came out of the house one morning and he threw his ball toward the fence,” said O’Neill, who has lived in her home since 1969. “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.”
In the first few months of their friendship, O’Neill stayed on her side of the fence and Benjamin remained on his.
“We were very cautious for her sake and for ours,” Olson said. “There was always some distance.”
In the winter months, the playdates were less frequent, “but a lot of the time, Sarah would bundle him up and stop by my house so I could see him,” O’Neill said.
As time wore on and the weather warmed, the friends began spending even more time together, and “there’s a lot more close interaction now that we’re vaccinated,” Olson said. “Now, she high-fives Benjamin.”
“We really make a point of making sure we are with Mary each day,” Olson said, adding that Benjamin started day care six weeks ago but they still make an effort to see her every day.
While Benjamin is at day care three days a week, “I miss him. But I see him in the evening when he comes home,” O’Neill said.
This spring, O’Neill gifted Benjamin her late son’s toy truck collection, which was stashed away in her basement, collecting dust.
“I knew he loved trucks, so I took them up one day.” O’Neill said, adding that her son died when he was 53. “I wanted him to have them.”
“That was an incredible day,” Olson recalled. “She saved them all this time, and there just happens to be a 2-year-old boy that loves to play with them now.”
Benjamin decided to give O’Neill something in return. He grasped a pile of dirt and delivered it to her doorstep. It’s his new favorite activity.
“He comes with his little hand and puts it in mine,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes it’s a leaf. Sometimes it’s just dirt.”
O’Neill cherishes whatever Benjamin brings — even if it’s just himself. Watching him and his brother grow up, she said, “makes me feel fulfilled and satisfied. And just really happy.”
In recent weeks, Benjamin has started saying more words, including his own interpretation of O’Neill’s name. He calls her “Mimi.”
“He’s always looking for Mimi,” Olson said.
For her part, O’Neill keeps careful count of his new teeth, what words he knows and, when he was younger, how his walking progressed. “He’s the nearest thing to a grandchild I have around here,” she said.
O’Neill will mark her 100th birthday in December, and she’s having a party to celebrate the occasion in August. Benjamin and his family will be there.
“I don’t feel 100 years old,” O’Neill said. Her friendship with Benjamin proves that “age is just a number.”
“I guess I’m a 2-year-old at heart,” she said. Regardless of the decades that separate them, “We belong together.”
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