I just got back from visiting my oldest niece and her family in Philadelphia for a few days. It was the first time I’d been to their apartment in the Germantown section of the city.

Since I didn’t want to drive that far (or in a major city where I’d been exactly once in my life), I drove to Portland instead and caught a bus at the Transportation Center, which could not be easier to get to, as 295 South takes you right there. The bus took me to South Station in Boston, where, after a little hunting around, I found where Amtrak keeps its trains and boarded one for the City of Brotherly Love. The confusing bit about that was that Amtrak trains and Boston Commuter Rail trains use the same tracks — after asking a few people, someone kindly explained that to me, an inexperienced traveler from the sticks.

The few hitches along the way were minor, but at least one did make me curious. We were somewhere in New Jersey when someone came on the train’s PA system and announced that the train had to wait where it was because there was “police activity ahead.” On the tracks? I wondered. What could they be doing there? Maybe they were chasing someone near or along the tracks? Boarding a previous train to search for a suspect? We never got any more details.

Even after the train started moving again, it soon slowed down, and a further announcement informed passengers that we had to go at reduced speed because of more police activity. Busy people, those New Jersey constables.

I arrived in Philadelphia a half-hour or so late and there were my niece Rachel and my great-niece, Maxine, waiting patiently. It was great to see them, as well as my niece’s husband, John, who was at home making dinner. However, the family member with whom I really bonded was Mildred, the cat. She welcomed me to her humble abode by sitting on my chest and purring after I went to bed the first night. Her full name, I decided, was Queen Mildred the Magnificent, and she benignly allowed me to pet her any time I wasn’t otherwise occupied during my visit. Rachel and John warned me that Mildred would bite if overstimulated by petting, and they weren’t lying. We worked it out, though. When she went for my arm, I stopped petting her until she calmed down.

Rachel and John were very kind hosts, taking me to the Philadelphia Art Museum, on walks and to see the amazing and beautiful Longwood Gardens, site of Pierre duPont’s former estate. It’s a wonderful place to see plants of all shapes, kinds and sizes. I also tagged along on trips to the grocery store and to take Maxine, 12, to and from ballet day camp.

Max is very enthusiastic about ballet, and according to her mom, works hard at it. She’s a curious combination of nearly adult and still a kid, arguing that she should have her own phone but still enjoying a bedtime story. In my memory, at least, I was more content to be still a child at her age, not really interested in independence. But the world in which Max is growing up is so different from that of almost 60 years ago, both more closely tied together and less sheltered because of the internet. Max has an awareness of, and sensitivity to, issues such as sexuality and gender identity that I hadn’t even heard of at her age, and for a number of years after.

But she’s still a tween — convinced that one of her ballet camp teachers “hates” her because the teacher isn’t overtly friendly, interested in a TV show about a girl obsessed with comic book heroes who discovers she herself has super powers. The twist about that show is that the heroine is Pakistani-American and Muslim, whereas when I was around that age I loved a cartoon called “Jonny Quest,” about the adventures of a white boy whose father was a government scientist. Jonny did have a pal called Hadji, a Calcutta orphan who was adopted by Jonny’s father. But no girls in sight.

I’m glad that my great-niece has parents who understand life’s shades of gray and also have shown her by their example how to treat other people, how to be kind, take the initiative, be honest. I’m also glad they continue to protect her, setting limits about her use of the internet, and expect her to contribute to the household by doing chores. No one learns how to be part of a community except by taking part in one, and a family is just a small community. Being expected to contribute gives you the message that you have something to contribute, that your participation matters.

Ultimately, I think, it is participation — the willingness to show up and do what you can — that matters more than knowledge or talent. Both are nice, but the sense that you are responsible for helping move the world in a positive direction means more. We can’t expect a happy ending that we’re not willing to contribute to.

If our society and our planet are to survive, we’re going to need everyone to participate for the good of everyone. In the long run, none of us can make it alone. I hope the youth of Maxine’s generation take this idea to heart, for they will inherit a world in dire need of people willing to define self-interest unselfishly.

Sarah E. Reynolds is a former editor of The Republican Journal.

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