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Building a cottage taught us about the generosity of neighbours and friends.

The first time we saw him, he was striding through the woods with his hand outstretched - ready to shake our hands from at least 10 metres away.

"Hello!" he announced, his voice booming in the stillness of the morning. "I'm Jeff, one of your neighbours out here. Hey, if you ever need a place to stay while you're working on your cottage, you're welcome to stay at our place. We're just along the way."

We were dumbfounded. This was the first time we had met the guy, and he was offering to put us up in his cottage? My husband Peter dropped the hammer he was holding and promptly shook the offered hand.

It was the moment our luck would change. Our cottage was a year behind schedule and, with fall's chill in the air, we needed a roof - stat. That very morning, in the fall of 2009, we had arrived for a meeting with our builder to review progress, and instead discovered a deserted work-site and a note etched with a nail on a cedar shingle: "Sorry, couldn't stay. Don't freak out about the roof."

Truth be told, we were freaking out about the roof. But this isn't a story about a missing-in-action contractor, who by the way, we ended up taking to small claims court - where we won. This is a story about what building a cottage taught us about the generosity of neighbours, and about our own capacity for learning.

Our idea was to build a cottage while our kids (we've got two teenaged sons and one near-teen daughter) were still relatively young. For one summer, we toured the province and looked around, but nothing felt quite right. In the end, we opted to build a small cabin, nothing fancy, on an acre of land along Molega Lake - one of Queens County's larger lakes - about an hour and a half from Halifax. The kids would get attached to the place and bring their friends. For Peter and I, it would be a place without distractions; we'd swim, play board games, read books. Hello, cottage life!

All that has happened, just a little slower than we anticipated. (As Peter recently noted wryly, both boys are now shaving). Once the roof was on - we hired a crew to do that for us - we had to continue with the rest of the work ourselves. The trouble was that we'd never built anything before; fortunately it turned out that my husband's handyman skills were dormant rather than nonexistent, and even I was getting the hang of the chop saw. WWRRRrrrr! (Confession: we're both still nervous about the table saw and affirm our love for each other - "Love you," "Love you too" -  every time we turn it on.)

With the generous assistance of Jeff, whose features we've come to regard as angelic, we worked on the place every weekend. We finished the exterior with cedar shingles, put on the deck and set up the wood stove. The cottage was roof-tight and snug by the time winter set in.

Until our power was hooked up, Graham and Judy Chisholm next door let us run an extension cord down to their place, so we could operate the power tools. Our neighbours on the other side, Glenn and Chrissy Horton, lent us the tools we didn't end up buying, and almost everyone in the vicinity came at some point to check up on the progress we were making.

After the spring thaw, we worked on the interior. Jeff studied up on plumbing, installed the bathroom fixtures and hooked up the kitchen sink - a great big porcelain sink that I found on kijiji.ca. He put wainscoting in the bathroom and built the kitchen cabinets. We primed, painted and tiled the kitchen counter with gorgeous blue tiles that came from Spain via Happy Harry's. Peter put up the rustic corbels that I picked up at Renovators Resource to support the breakfast bar - Sarah Richardson eat your heart out!

In June, Jeff and Peter installed the trio of pretty church windows into the loft over the front porch. I had found them years ago in a junk shop, and they finally had a home. After all the worry and stress, the cottage was starting to look the way we had envisioned during those heady days spent flipping through magazines and surfing the Web, dreaming up the perfect retreat.

Over the summer, we continued to work on the place, but our pace slowed as we found other things to do. The kids were having wrestling matches on the Chisholms' swimming platform and teaching our nine-year-old dog, Shadow - a Labrador retriever, for goodness sake - to swim. In the evenings, they had epic Monopoly tournaments by candlelight. Peter took the kayak out and explored the lake and its many coves, inlets and islands. I made my way through Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro detective novels and, on one wonderful day, went on an antique ramble, peeking in the shops from Bridgewater to Petite Rivière; I picked up the fish sign that looks perfect on our back porch.

Sometimes we didn't do anything, beyond looking up in amazement at the glorious, star-studded night sky, so much more brilliant away from the lights of the city.

There's still work to be done - the lofts need railings, and it would be nice to have a wood floor to cover the plywood. Oh, and a door on the bathroom that actually closes would be swell! But the Blue Willow dishes are in the cupboards, and Oma's quilts are on the beds; there are walls between rooms and a toilet that flushes. We are content.

We've enjoyed one full cycle in our cottage, delighting in the hot days of summer spent with a hand trailing in the water beside the kayak, and the cool days of fall with a fire roaring in the wood stove. We've drained the hot-water tank and the pipes, and have shut down the power - looking forward to when we'll arrive again in the spring, laden with groceries for a weekend, and opening wide the garden doors to flood the place with sunlight. It feels good, knowing what we've done and how far we've come since that morning when a stranger, now a wonderful friend, came to offer a hand.

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