Lessons from waterfalls
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Lessons from waterfalls

A grandmother and her photographer grandson look at water, think about life

Water thunders down at Niagra Falls; inset, Tzivia Bieler and her grandson, Chayim Tzvi Schneider. (Chayim Tzvi Schneider)
Water thunders down at Niagra Falls; inset, Tzivia Bieler and her grandson, Chayim Tzvi Schneider. (Chayim Tzvi Schneider)

My husband always handled all the arrangements for family trips. He thought the planning was exciting, while I found that piece stressful and tedious. But now, years later after his death, I, too, am quite good at organization (isn’t evolving fascinating?) and here’s what I organize with the same enthusiasm my husband displayed so many years ago: one-on-one trips with grandchildren.

In fact, I have just added a sixth notch to my grandmother/grandchild trip belt – five days on the road this past July with my  16½-year-old Israeli grandson, Chayim Tzvi. (We call him CT.)

Perhaps you remember that in 2021, I traveled to Sedona and the Grand Canyon with my then-24-year-old Israeli grandson Gershon — I described that trip in this paper last year. One difference this time around: While I hiked two and a half hours in 100-degree heat in Sedona, I did not stress about long stretches behind the wheel of the car, since my grandson did all the driving. The greatest challenge of this year’s trip was the number of miles I would drive in order to find unique places for Chayim Tzvi to photograph throughout New York State and the Canadian Niagara Falls.

I lay in bed the few nights prior to our travels wondering if, finally, this grandmother had bitten off more than she could chew. When I wasn’t stressing, however, I was fantasizing. I imagined myself like one of the characters in the 1960s CBS TV show “Route 66.” Did I resemble Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock as they drove a Corvette (If only I did! What brownie points I would have earned!) and worked odd jobs searching for adventures from Chicago to California? Not really. Our adventure most definitely had a different focus: discovering and photographing beautiful waterfalls.

My original offer to  Chayim Tzvi was the drive to Canada’s Niagara Falls. I had never visited either the American or the Canadian side; with this trip I could check one more item off my modest bucket list while offering my photographer grandson an unusual experience. In the planning, however, we discovered two other remarkable sets of waterfalls — some of the 19 waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park in the New York’s Finger Lakes, and Letchworth State Park, which boasts three major waterfalls in the state’s Genesee region.

Putting Cooperstown and Howe Caverns on a back burner (but they were wonderful parts of our trip!), water definitely became our theme.

Chayim Tzvi Schneider and Tzivia Bieler at Letchworth State Park, in a photo that CT’s drone took. (Chayim Tzvi Schneider)

Now I have a good deal of respect for water. Everyone knows our bodies cannot live without it. Water fills 60 percent of a man’s body, 55 percent of a woman’s. Water sustains us, cleanses us, heals us, and refreshes us. Jews pray for rain. Farmers pray for rain. The waters of the Red Sea miraculously divided and allowed the Israelites to walk through dry land. The Talmud, in Tractate Ta’anit 9a, teaches us that in the merit of Miriam’s song, a well appeared in the desert that followed the Israelites wherever they went. Jeremiah, in 2:12 and 17:13, refers to the Almighty as the “Source of Living Waters.”

And the water insecurity people experience throughout time and around the world helps us understand that God is the ultimate provider of not just water, but of everything we need.

But I admit that water also frightens me. I am a terrible swimmer and recognize that in a bad situation, I could be in serious trouble. Sometimes I think about my friend since kindergarten, who drowned in a powerful undertow in Lake Michigan  as we completed our freshman year of college. I am a crazed – and most likely very embarrassing — grandmother watching grandchildren stepping into an ocean, as I repeatedly call out, “Not too far; not too far; NOT TOO FAR! Stay close! Watch out for sharks!!” And then of course there are hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis that wreak destruction, rainstorms filled with fury, and winds that once cut off my electricity for 10 days and could bring tree branches crashing through my windows.

No wonder our dog would always hide under the bed when the rain, accompanied by thunder, pounded against the windows.

But Chayim Tzvi and I were looking to capture a strictly positive view of water and waterfalls, reflections of natural beauty in the Almighty’s world. And while I breathed out sighs of relief at my driving capabilities, I breathed in the amazing elements of the waterfalls. Keep in mind that I had a lot of time to think about those waterfalls: I was the quiet observer throughout the hours that it took my grandson to set up his equipment, take his photographs, navigate his drone.

At right, Glen Falls. Both are in upstate New York. (Chayim Tzvi Schneider))

Grandparents are amazingly able to sit quietly just watching for a very long time.

The three trails in Watkins Glen State Park are found in a 400-foot-deep narrow gorge that runs over, under, and along the park’s 19 waterfalls. Visitors walk across stone bridges and up and down more than 800 stone steps. The only way to move forward to see the gentle waterfalls is via those upward stone steps – many, many, many steps — and let me point out that often there were no railings to keep us steady. We went up and up and up and  after about 2 ½ hours of photographing and droning (is that a real word?) had passed, we then went down and down and down, photographing along the way, until we reached our starting place.

Picture, if you will, these striking waterfalls: small, gentle, almost magical, musical as they flow, with a touch of the dramatic as they weave their way down among the different shaped rocks and ledges. Serene natural beauty surrounded us.

I mention that I had lots of time to think. Sure enough, my imagination began to work overtime. I thought about people I know who are like these waterfalls. Such exceptional people, you will agree – it takes time to reach them, to know them, to appreciate what makes them special in your life.

They don’t shout about themselves, they don’t try to infringe on your space, they know how to bring joy and serenity into your life. As time passes, as their uniqueness trickles along and touches your heart, you come to treasure their inner individuality and serenity, as well as the joy they bring into your world. And yes, it sometimes requires many steps moving forward – and sometimes an equal number of steps turning around the other way — to reach that deeper understanding.

There’s always a rainbow over Niagara Falls. (Chayim Tzvi Schneider)

In stark contrast, I felt the Canadian Niagara Falls shouting at me – powerful, overbearing, loud, boisterous, a bit frightening even from the safety of solid ground. Some say that the word “Niagara” comes from an Iroquois word “Onguiaahra,” meaning “the Strait,” which would be the body of water that both Falls feed into. Others say that the name of the Falls comes from another indigenous word meaning “thundering waters.” I definitely get that. Looking to the left, the American Falls are quieter, smaller, and actually more beautiful. It seemed to me that the Canadian Falls were almost shouting at their smaller relative to the left, asserting their superiority and reminding everyone which one of the two was more powerful and impressive.

When we took a boat ride close to the Falls, the spray and noise were so strong we were incapable of seeing what was right in front of us. And the closer we got, the more a blur it became – a very wet blur at that!

Now I definitely know people like that: loud, pompous, quite full of themselves, powerful personalities, and though you might try to get closer to them, you can never really see what they are all about. And generally, they are not particularly interested in you either. I don’t care much to be around such personalities, and yes, one trip to the Canadian Niagara Falls was enough for me for a lifetime.

Happenstance brought us to Letchworth State Park in Castile, New York. Locals call it the Grand Canyon of the East, as it boasts a small canyon that is beautiful in its own right. The Genesee River roars through the gorge with three major waterfalls between high cliffs. And all around you there are miles and miles of lush forests. Those lush forests enveloped us as we drove a good 20 minutes to reach the one waterfall we photographed. But, oh, how it was worth the ride.

Here before us was a majestic, graceful, many-layered waterfall – its music most certainly louder than the smaller Watkins Glen waterfalls, but without the pretentious loud drums of Niagara Falls. Its beauty and grace captivated me.

This is the one photo that Tzivia Bieler took of her grandson, Chayim Tzvi. ( Tzivia Bieler)

I could have admired and listened to the waterfall for quite some time as Chayim Tzvi’s camera and drone captured its magic. In fact, that is precisely what I did, for I was quite accustomed at this point to sitting and watching. But this time my grandson and the waterfall merged into one spotlight in my imagination. When we asked a young man to take our picture, he did so quite willingly, and then Chayim Tzvi happily answered all the gentleman’s questions about his camera. Although totally engrossed in directing the drone, he took the time while bringing it back home to show an inquisitive couple and their children the photos and videos captured by the drone and to explain a bit how it all worked.

And I realized that there in front of me was the perfect combined imagery: majesty, kindness, music, passion, natural beauty, intelligence, and talent, God’s world in a single frame.

At each place we visited, there was always a moment when Chayim Tzvi would happily remark: “It was worth it just for this picture!” For me, all my planning and driving was worth it just to hear him say those words each time. The added gift was visiting those waterfalls. All I have to do now is decide who’s up next and where we are going.

And planning the next trip? I am absolutely and joyfully ready.

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