It was in mid-March when I got the first phone call. I don’t remember which day it was. One has a tendency not to recollect such details. My son was calling to inform me that the district had closed the schools because of the coronavirus outbreak. And that my grandchildren would be home from school and day care. Just days before I had gotten two of them off the school bus in the afternoon. I said to the bus driver, see you tomorrow. Well, tomorrow never came. And so it started, the spring and summer of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, over the years I have done my share of taking care of my grandkiddies, as I like to call them. They range from 2 to 8 years old. Since they were infants, everything from changing diapers, feeding and rocking them to sleep and playing with them had become a big part of my life. They say in retirement that it’s important to have a purpose. Something to look forward to when you wake up in the morning. They became my purpose, a way of life I couldn’t imagine losing.

That is why the next phone call was hard to accept. "Hey Dad, the coronavirus is spreading. It’s probably best if we all self-isolate." And so the stay-at-home took effect. Gone was my purpose.

Video chatting became our way of staying in touch, until a phenomenon I liked to call the caravan visits occurred. The grandkiddies only lived one town over; so close and yet so far.

Seeing them pull into my driveway with the windows open yelling "Hello, Grandpa Joe" was the best sight and sound in a long time. They stayed in the van. I stayed six feet away, and we talked and loved one another from a distance.

After months of hard work and sacrifice from fellow Long Islanders, the coronavirus was under control. That’s when I got the next phone call. "Hey Dad, wonderful news, since we’ve all done a great job of isolating and staying healthy we can start seeing each other again."

The first day I visited was a memorable one. This time, I pulled in to their driveway. I barely got myself out of the car before I was lovingly swarmed, followed by long hugs and kisses with happy tears. We were so happy to see one another. And even though I knew this visit would end, I had the feeling that something wonderful was going to happen. It was time for me to rediscover my purpose.

After that, once or twice a week, my grandkids would spend the day with me. I called it Camp GPJ (for Grand Pa Joe). Keeping them occupied and not watching TV all day was my biggest challenge. Driveway art, mini-golf, running through the sprinklers (sorry Camp GPJ doesn’t have a pool), make-believe school, arts and crafts, hide and seek, and lemonade parties were the activities of the day.

Taking a walk out to my vegetable garden was another a treat. My 2-year-old would exclaim, "I have an idea. Let’s go pick some sugar snap peas." They would pick and eat right in the garden. Next stop was the pumpkin patch. They were happy, I was happier. I had found my purpose again.

COVID-19 has affected all of us. Sadly, many have lost their lives. I’ve been fortunate: I had only lost my purpose. Though, in reality, it wasn’t really lost, just displaced by the virus. And if I need to isolate again and not see my grandkiddies for any reason, I’ll accept it for what it is.

If that happens I’ll be waiting for the next phone call. It might go something like this: "Hey Grandpa Joe, I have an idea. Can we come over and pick some pumpkins?" Of course, you know what my answer will be.

Joe Gentile,


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