A couple of weeks ago, we went on vacation to the Adirondacks, where we shared a lakeside house with one of my brothers.

The weather was beautiful for the first few days, then it turned damp and chilly, as often happens in the mountains. But not before I had a couple of opportunities to play with Maxine in the shallow swimming area made for the kids by the owners of this former Great Camp. Max is my 4-year-old great-niece, an only child with great charm and definite ideas about things.

She has a life vest that she wears into the water, and I'm pretty sure she has had some swimming lessons, but she was still unsure about the lake. The first day, she would walk across from one side of the kids' swimming area, up the ladder to the pier on the other side, then climb a big boulder up to the beach where her mom was sitting on a towel. After a brief conference, Max would head back down to the water to repeat the process, practicing again and again going into the lake and getting out. I sat on the ladder and gave her a hug or talked to her as she went by.

Most of the water toys are shared by whatever kids are there at any given time, and Max had seen a girl playing on a big, inflatable whale. When the girl got off, we asked if we could use the whale, and she said sure. (It later turned out that the whale was not hers, but we felt it was a good idea to ask.) Max climbed aboard the whale, and was just able, by stretching, to reach the handles. Since her feet didn't hang down in the water enough for her to propel herself by kicking, I pushed her around. We had such a good time that we were eager to do it again the next day, and we did.

I also got to ride in back seat next to Max's car seat and go for a walk in the woods with her and her parents. She would not pose for a picture, so I had to sneak a couple of candids when she wasn't looking. My niece said Maxine often refuses to pose (by which I just mean hold still and smile), but there are lots of photos of her, so I must not be the first to adopt the candid strategy.

Another day, my sister-in-law, Max's grandmother, and I took her to ride on a carousel with beautifully carved and painted animals. There was a beaver, a loon, a tortoise and hare, even a handsome trout. Max announced that she preferred to ride on the animals that didn't go up and down. “I'm afraid of heights,” she said, in a voice whose confident tone made me doubt she was afraid of anything. We rode next to each other – she on a horse and me on a bear, neither of which moved. Then she wanted to go again, and rode with her Nana in a rock-steady boat, while I took the loon, which went up and down.

We went out to the playground next to the carousel and she chose to go down the shorter of two twisty slides. Again, “I'm afraid of heights,” was her explanation for why she did not want to try the taller slide, even after watching other kids and her Nana and me go down it. We didn't make an issue of it, and she seemed very matter-of-fact. She went on the swings too, and we took turns pushing her.

On our first rainy day, we went to a wonderful indoor/outdoor museum about the flora and fauna of the Adirondack Park called The Wild Center. Max had been asking to go there since we had arrived. One of her favorite things was a stuffed moose. We enjoyed wandering through the exhibits with living animals – fish, turtles, otters – in tanks that resembled their natural habitats, and saw a nice short film with aerial photography of the park. While she and Nana were off in another area, Max's parents and I checked out the gift shop. I got her a plush purse shaped like a moose's head with antlers, which went over rather well.

As the only child of very bright, devoted parents, Maxine is a smart little girl. Along with other family members, we played Mille Bornes, a card game somewhat like Uno, which I'd had as a much older child than Max. With a small amount of coaching from her dad, she did very well, and clearly understood how the game went.

Because we don't see Max and her parents very often – maybe twice a year – Maureen and I had a high novelty factor, and were therefore of more than ordinary interest. When I went to find her in the morning, Max would often ask, “Where's Aunt Maureen?” I would answer that she was still asleep, and Max would announce, “I think we should wake her up!” If it was near 10 a.m., we would attempt to do that, but we always found Aunt Maureen already up. As a mother herself, maybe she has radar.

The week was not entirely devoted to activities with Max – they were just the best part. Being a great-aunt is a good deal: the fun of being a grandparent without having to be a parent first.