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  • Writer's picturePenny Neef

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Words by and photos courtesy of Penny Neef.

Life as we know it has changed. Some of us will have to adapt to survive. Some of us might even thrive. There’s time now to take a risk, try something new and explore a different path, as long as it is from home.

This is a story about how two college roommates became roommates again, fifty years later during the Crisis of Covid-19. It’s a story about baby boomers, who are officially “old”, changing the way they live and work at astonishing speed. You can teach an old dog new tricks. You don’t even have to teach them. They can figure it out by themselves.

The silver haired guy I live with, aka Dave, and I moved to Hampton Roads seven years ago to be closer to our four fantastic grandchildren (and our daughter and son-in-law of course). It was a great bonus that Dave’s college roommate, John, and his wife, Roz, had lived in Norfolk for 40+ years.

Life is excellent in Hampton Roads. We love the thriving arts community. We love the long and beautiful spring and fall seasons. We love that the Outer Banks is only an hour and a half away. We love that John and Roz often invite us to their beach house.

Then came the Coronavirus. Dave and I are in excellent health, but we are in the official “high risk” category.  We have a daughter who is a doctor back in Michigan who warned us early and warned us hard about staying home. We are mostly retired, so we stocked up (no hoarding I promise) and stayed home, except for walks around the Norfolk Botanical Garden and our neighborhood. 

In the meantime, John and Roz had a pregnant daughter with a husband and two small children in Singapore who were trying to get back to the States. They had been living in East Asia for a while and did not have a house here. They got a flight home on Friday, March 20. They had been social distancing for weeks in Singapore. No one in the family was sick, but they knew they would have to self-isolate for two weeks once they got back. That included self-isolating from John and Roz. No problem. John and Roz planned to meet them at the airport with two cars, toss the keys to one of the cars to them, and the young family would head straight to the beach house for their two-week quarantine.

It was a good plan, but the timing was off by two hours. Their flight arrived at midnight. The Outer Banks closed down to non-resident property owners at 10:00 pm on the 20th. Long story short, John and Roz gave up their house to their daughter and her family. John and Roz packed a few bags and moved in with us that night.

Their daughter and her family are doing fine. Everyone is healthy. Kind friends and family are delivering food to the door of John and Roz’s house in Norfolk and staying well away. John and Roz have settled into our guest room. The four of us are pretending we’re back at Kalamazoo College.

John and Roz are not retired. John is a partner in the law firm of Montagna Klein Camden LLP with offices in downtown Norfolk and Newport News. The firm has 7 attorneys, 13 employees and a busy caseload.

Roz owns the only yarn shop in Norfolk, Baa Baa Sheep on 22nd Street in Ghent. Roz is the only full-time employee. She has 3 ladies that work part-time. The shop is busy, with classes and knitters who sit up front, knit and talk. The shop is packed with gorgeous yarn of all kinds. Roz is always there, helping with a complicated pattern, ready to pick up a stitch that’s dropped, or suggesting the best yarn for the project at hand. 

Baa Baa Sheep is a community. Roz knows all her regular customers. She knows about their partners and their children. It’s a community where everyone has been told to stay home. You would think that wouldn’t be a problem for people who knit, but people who knit need supplies, and people who knit, enjoy knitting together. Roz needs to pay the rent on her brick and mortar small business. She misses her knitters and her knitters miss her.

Roz moved at head spinning speed to keep her business going, to accommodate her customers and to keep providing that sense of community. It was impressive.

A knitting kit from Roz's store.

A Surprise Project Bag from Baa Baa Sheep.

Here is a timeline.

March 17 –  Roz sends out an email to the 2,300 customers on her email list to let them know the shop would be closing at the end of the day on March 18. March 18 –  There’s a mini rush on Baa Baa Sheep as customers come in to do some yarn stash. March 20 –  Roz and John move in with us.  March 21 –  Roz sets up a Zoom and account and learns how to use both. March 22 –  We have a test run of Zoom from the guest bedroom to my bedroom, then Roz tries it with her family, her three daughters, three son-in-laws and her eight grandchildren. March 23 –  Roz sends an email to her customers announcing she will be in the shop from 10:30 – 2:30 Monday through Friday for curbside pickup of yarn and supplies or she will mail supplies anywhere in the United States. Her customers can call while she is in the shop. She is happy to text photos of yarns and patterns to purchase. She also announces her virtual knitting circle will meet via Zoom each Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 – 4:30. Knitters can get Roz’s expert advice and chat together like they do in the shop. March 24 –  First Baa Baa Sheep virtual knitting circle is a great success. April 3 –  Roz figures everyone needs “a new project, a little surprise in the mailbox and a wee bit of chocolate” right about now. She announces “A Surprise Project Bag from Baa Baa Sheep.” Each bag contains a pattern, yarn and stitch markers. There are five pricing options. In an effort to help another small business in Ghent and to “sweeten” the deal, Roz includes a sweet treat from The Bonbonnier, a bakery and candy shop in Ghent, which has closed down their shop.

I popped into the Zoom knitting group the other day. The ladies and men are delighted to be back together, knitting away. I told the group I was writing about old dogs learning new tricks during the time of Covid-19. One of the salty ladies said, “You can’t call me an old dog, but you can call me a bitch.” Everyone laughed.

Roz won’t mind me calling her an old dog. She’s not only surviving, she’s thriving. She’s coming up with new ideas, figuring out how to make those new ideas work, and putting them in place as quickly as she can.

If you find yourself with time on your hands right now, you might want to try knitting. Roz is in the shop, Monday through Friday from 10:30 – 2:30. You can call her at 757-802-9229. She can steer you towards some good YouTube videos to get you started. She will suggest a simple pattern and yarn that you can pick up curbside or she will mail you the supplies you need. Support a small business and discover a new hobby at the same time.

Then there is Roz’s husband, John. John’s new office is my guest bedroom. He’s up at 6:30 every morning and makes the commute to his “office” by 8:30. He emerges for lunch at noon and back into the bedroom he goes. This old dog had to learn a few new tricks too. An attorney has to sign lots of documents. John learned how to sign electronically. He misses talking to his clients in person, but he spends a great deal of time speaking to them on the phone.

John works from home in Penny's spare bedroom.

The closing of the courts will slow down his business eventually, but right now, he and most of his partners and employees are working from home. As his administrative assistant said yesterday, from her house, “We are hitting on all cylinders, even with all this out of the office stuff.”

We will be sad to see John and Roz go back to their own home, although I suspect they will be happy to be back with their daughter and her family. It’s kind of amazing what we can accomplish from the place we live when we are forced to stay where we live.

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