Georgia Mom Tara Wood was grocery shopping with her 4-year-old daughter Norah when the young girl hopped up in the cart and shouted, “Hi, old person!” at a man passing by.
“Before I could tell Norah, ‘Please use kind words,’ the man stopped and said, ‘Well, hi little lady! How are you today?’ ” Wood tells PEOPLE.
Norah and the man, 82-year-old Dan Peterson, chatted for a few minutes and then went their separate ways. Then Norah asked her mom if she could take a picture with her new friend.
Because it was Norah’s fourth birthday, Wood agreed and the pair went back to find the man and ask him to take a photo.
“When we found him and asked him, he took a step back and put his hand on his chest and said, ‘You want a photo with me?’ ” the mom of seven recalls. “He was shocked and sort of delighted and Norah said, ‘Yes, sir, for my birthday.’ ”
After taking the photo, Norah and Peterson chatted for a few more minutes. When it was time to go, Wood told Norah to thank the man for being so friendly and agreeable.
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“So she thanked him and he said, ‘No, thank you! You’ve made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time,’ ” Wood says. “He was kind of tearing up and it was very sweet.”
On the ride home, Wood says she couldn’t stop thinking about the man and what may have drawn Norah to him. So, Wood wrote about the September 28 meeting on her Facebook writer page and shared her photos from the encounter.
The Augusta, Georgia, mom’s post caught the eye of a local reader who knew Peterson had recently suffered a personal tragedy.
“This reader sent me a message explaining that Dan’s wife passed away in March and that he has been very sad and lonely and in a deep depression ever since,” Wood says. “She said that this was the first time she had seen him smile since his wife died.”
Wood was touched. She asked the reader to pass along Peterson’s contact information so that she could reach out.
“I called him the next day and he was tickled to hear from me,” Wood says. “We talked for about 20 minutes and he told me what it meant to him and what he had been going through and I asked if we could take him out to lunch that Friday.”
“His voice cracked and I could tell he was getting emotional, but he said he would love to,” she continues.
When Friday rolled around, Norah and her mom went to Peterson’s house to pick him up.
“He looked like a completely different person,” Wood says. “He had gotten a haircut and trimmed his eyebrows and he was wearing slacks and a button-down – he had dressed up for us like we were coming to court him.”
Peterson had even set up a little table with paper and crayons in his garden where Norah sat and made art for his refrigerator before the group headed out to lunch.
“We ended up spending three hours with him that day. He and Norah chatted like they had known each other forever. There was no getting to know each other it was just like the most natural thing in the world,” Wood says. “I was in awe.”
“Norah got ketchup all over her face and he wiped it off and he even let her finish his chicken nuggets,” she continues. “I just didn’t think this lunch should be the end of their friendship.”
Wood asked if it would be all right if she and Norah continued to have weekly visits with Peterson. “He said he would be delighted,” she recalls.
“We’ve seen him every week since,” she says. “We always visit even if it’s just for 15 or 20 minutes. We even celebrated his 82nd birthday with him – we took him balloons and a cupcake the size of his head.”
“I think she has given him a new lease on life and we’re all better for it,” Wood says. “He’s part of our family now and I think we’ll be friends until the end of his days.”
One month after the first meeting, Wood wrote about Norah and Peterson’s remarkable friendship on the Today Parents network.
“Seventy-eight years separate these two people in age,” she wrote. “Somehow, their hearts and souls seem to recognize each other from long ago.”
Wood’s post went viral and provoked happy tears around the world.
“I never ever saw this wave coming,” Wood says. “We’ve gotten hundreds of messages from people around the world sharing their stories of grandparents or special elderly people in their lives. It has just been amazing.”
She says she hopes the story will inspire others to “slow down and not treat old people like they’re invisible.”
“It doesn’t take much — it could be as simple as helping someone reach something on a top shelf at the grocery store or just saying hello while you’re standing in line,” she says. “I think people sometimes forget the elderly and it makes me sad to think of them being alone wishing their family or friends would reach out.”
“So take a minute to say hi,” Wood concludes. “You never know how it could change a person’s life.”