Hara Theou – Building a Summer Retreat during the Voyage of Life

March 5, 2021
By Peter Nicolelis

It began as a question, “Pa… why don’t we build a summer place of our own?”

Then it became a dream that soon became a family project. A project that consumed our lives and especially our weekends for several years. Yes, it took that long for my father and I to complete construction of our modest, 816 square-foot, three-bedroom summer retreat.

The project began with the clearing and the excavation for the foundation. Once those two items were completed, the project became ours to complete.

My father and I began with the mixing and placement of 10 cubic yards of concrete for the footings. That effort was followed by the erection of 1200, 35lb, concrete building blocks (cmu) to complete the 12-course, foundation walls. 

This phase of the project was physically difficult for us both since neither my father nor I had ever worked as concrete workers. Nor had we ever laid brick or concrete blocks. The mixing and placement of concrete was a process I had observed while working as a surveyor on the Levittown Project in 1948. That job gave me the opportunity to observe and study each phase of single family home construction. I felt comfortable with all of the building trades, although my hands did not bear witness to having real-time experience.

When we approached the block laying phase of the project, I realized I lacked bricklaying experience. I called and asked my good friend Michael Pontisakos, who was now working for Planet Construction, if he would sign me up for an apprentice bricklaying workshop. Michael agreed and submitted my name. I was accepted and attended. The classes met three evenings per week. I went to that workshop for three months after my day job.

I passed along the bricklaying basics I had learned to my father and we began working as a block laying team. The laying of every block became a joint effort. My father worked on the inside and I worked the outside of the foundation wall. The laying of each block had to be perfect. It had to be right in line and perfectly plumb level. This phase of the building project, as were all the other phases, were completed on our weekend work schedule and this phase took us over one year to complete.

The next phase of our project was the framing of the superstructure, including the installation of the wood siding and the roof shingles. We put our trowels and other masonry tools aside and assembled our carpentry tools. The carpentry work was not as physically demanding for us and the transition of skills was welcomed.

Once we completed the shell, installed the windows and doors, and made the structure weathertight, we hired an electrical company. We followed right behind them, installing insulation as the electricians were distributing power lines to each room. This was also the time that my father and I installed the plumbing for the kitchen and toilet.

After the electrician completed the power distribution, we began installing the sheetrock. That was a simple enough operation until we began installing the ceiling sheetrock. That was a time that tested our patience. I had not researched enough to learn the technique and that inexperience tested us.

This was also the time that we hired a well driller. The company we hired was highly recommended and they did service us very well. With his drilling equipment, the worker was able to drill down to find an abundant aquifer on his first attempt.

Then, after we finished, we didn’t pack away our tools. We kept them handy for upgradings to our cozy retreat.

Over the past 60+ years, our family summer place has served us well. It has also given each of us many memorable moments. One of the most memorable for me was when my father would look out to the east from our kitchen window in the early mornings. Then upon sighting the brilliant beams of sunlight piercing through the branches and foliage of the tall oak trees in our backyard he would joyfully proclaim… “Hara theou – joy of God.”

In 2016, I decided it was time for me to return to Ithaca.

I purchased a house trailer and had it delivered to our property. I resided on the site through the cold winter while overseeing and directing the construction of the enlargement and upgrading of what had been our modest summer place on a daily basis. By June, we were able to move into our new quarters.

I had completed my Odyssey. I was back at the scene of earlier challenges and obstacles I had overcome along the journey.

I then asked myself… “Now … how can I best commemorate my parents’ perpetual presence on this property to recall precious moments the family shared with my father and my loving, hard-working, ‘working mom’? I thought of the embedded granite boulder in our backyard. That boulder also had an odyssey. I imagine that it had been sheared off a stone outcrop in Connecticut, pushed southward by the last ice age across the earth’s depression that eventually became the Long Island Sound and then, finally, was deposited where it now rests in our backyard.

I reached for my notebook, sketched the projecting stone and designed my memorial, my ‘enthimio’ to the family I have survived by the Grace of God.


Finishing off a spectacular lunch at Hellas restaurant in Tarpon Springs, I strolled deep into the surrounding neighborhood to get an updated flavor for the renowned city of 25,000 inhabitants along Florida's Gulf Coast.

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