Before you go

A sister's letter to her big brother: 'You teased me but secretly I adored you'

Before You Go: Patti Shales Lefkos pays tribute to tireless efforts to preserve a family cottage—including a joint 'senior siblings' reno—that cap a lifetime of summer memories

When a parcel arrived from you in late December 2017, I was surprised. We hadn’t exchanged Christmas gifts for years. Buried beneath the red reindeer wrapping was a framed photo. We’re in work clothes, leaning together in front of a rustic wood-frame building, tools in hand. Grey hair signals our age. Our smiles show how much fun we’re having. I’m 72 and you’re 76. A fan of HGTV, I posted the photo on my Facebook page, using it to begin a series I called, “Senior siblings cottage reno.” Season 1 documents the beginning of our renovations of the Loon Island cottage, north of Kingston, Ont., where we spent idyllic summers. There were five of us: Mom and Dad, you and me and our sister, Donna, the middle child, plus our collie Roger, named for my favourite cowboy, Roy Rogers.

That fall, you single-handedly demolished the back two bedrooms, then hauled loads of wood, glass and nails into your small boat for trips to the mainland. Onshore you wheelbarrowed heaping bundles up the path, filled your truck and drove to the dump, time after time.

You prefer to work alone, but when it was time to reinforce the remaining structure, you called on me. Every day that September, we hammered, scraped flaking paint, sanded and primed the new cove siding that you cut and I installed to replace what had been left to rot since the deaths of our sister and parents. When I showed up at 7:30 a.m., you had already put in an hour of work. You chided me good-naturedly for sleeping in. Each new layer of paint revealed another era of family history. “Remember that tan colour,” you said. “That was the last time Dad painted the cottage. He was at least 90 that summer.” By 93, Dad’s health had waned. I thought of how you and Donna visited him every day, arranging caregivers and keeping me up to date until summer, when I arrived from the West Coast to take my shifts.

Scraping layer after layer, we finally reached the original dark green Dad had first painted the cottage. “That was the summer Dad got the red canoe. You always got to be leader. You got to steer in the stern, Donna paddled bow and I had to sit in the middle,” I said in my best whiny little sister voice. The only kids on the lake, we relied on each other for entertainment: fighting, fishing and building forts. You teased me but secretly I adored you.

The boards got a second coat of green the summer you and Dad arrived with the Peterborough cedar strip Aqua Flyer speedboat. You were 15. You paid half for the boat, motor and waterskis with money earned as a caddy at the Weston Golf and Country Club. I was so proud of you.

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During the winter, at school in the Toronto suburbs, we went our separate ways. But once in a while you took me with you on your paper route on our toboggan, dragging it over snowy sidewalks with me cocooned between stacks of the Toronto Telegram. When you were short-handed for road hockey, you let me be goalie. When I had my first job as a basket girl at the Weston swimming pool, you were my boss. Head lifeguard, you included me when the gang went for toasted Danish pastries after work at Weston’s legendary Central Restaurant.

As the hammering, scraping and priming of Season 1 drew to a close, we cemented our new relationship—carpenter and apprentice. By midway through Season 2, you were bragging to others about your little sister the carpenter and painter.

Two retired teachers, we honoured recess every day. You brewed coffee. I made cranberry oatmeal muffins. We sat outdoors in the red Muskoka chairs. You outlined our next steps. We discussed paint colours, ice blue for the interior, grey for the exterior. Conservative by nature, you at first resisted my suggestion to paint the screen door red to match the chairs. I won in the end.

Season 2 finished with us re-shingling the front pitch of the roof. We’ll be back at it in June this year for Season 3. Still have the back pitch of the roof to do.

Mom and Dad built the cottage so we could spend summers on the island. Now facetiously referred to as the main lodge, it serves as a base camp for family members who gather for afternoon tea and distance swims. As a father, grandfather, uncle and great-grandfather, you’ve worked tirelessly to preserve the cottage­—and family traditions. You’re the last to leave the lake in the fall and the first to arrive in spring. And I know it will be your motor I hear in mid-May when I pull into the parking lot to wait for my ride to the island.

This essay is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.

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