How a wrong turn off the New Jersey Turnpike led me back to my roots
—by Grace Browning
It was Mother’s Day, 2019. I was on my way home to Rochester, New York, after the final performance of Siegfried at the MET, when I saw a sign for Starbucks. After a heavy dose of 4.5-hour Wagner operas, this harpist was needing a healthy jolt of caffeine to make it home. Thankfully, I had my pup Annie keeping me company, and, since it was a holiday, I figured we could both treat ourselves to a frappuccino/puppuccino for the road.
But about a mile after I got off the highway, I realized the Starbucks was nowhere to be found. In a futile attempt to turn around, I pulled into a long winding driveway that led me to…a winery. (I swear on the soul of Wagner this was not planned!) Upon seeing the glorious sprawling vineyards and a cozy looking wine cottage, I figured Annie and I could both use a quick pit stop. But the moment I set foot inside the winery, I felt pulled in by the warmth of families joyfully gathered round long, shared tables, passing around potluck dishes and bottles, and dancing to festive live music. Once I found out the place was pet-friendly, I thought surely this was a sign. Before I knew it, Annie and I were seated across from a kind, middle-aged woman who was visiting with her three athletic sons and sweet husband. We wished each other happy Mother’s Day, and after chatting a bit more, I realized that her sons were all sporting jerseys that say “Mountain Lakes Lacrosse.”
I did a double take: Mountain Lakes is my hometown—the kind of place no one’s ever heard of, easily 60 miles away. When I asked her if she was from Mountain Lakes, she responded, “Yes, I’ve been a second grade teacher there for 26 years.” Another double take. “Oh, then you might know my siblings—the Brownings? I was the youngest of six.”
At that moment, a wave of recognition and joy passed over her face, as she smiled and said, “I know who you are—you’re Grace. I’m Miss Guttermuth—your second grade teacher!”
We both burst into tears—tears of joy, shock, gratitude, and awe. How was it that after 26 years of living all over the country, we would meet here at a tiny winery where I had never even intended to be? In all of life’s crazy uncertainties, here was a rare moment of serendipity that demanded some reflection. I’m not a heavy believer in signs, but if we were supposed to meet, what was I to learn from this surprise encounter?
Meeting someone from your past is a great way to hold up a mirror to your true self—almost like traveling back in time. Unlike almost everyone else in my life, Miss Guttermuth knew me before I started playing the harp. So in a way, this was a chance to get to know the “original” Grace, version 1.0. As performers, it can become difficult to separate ourselves from our passion. After thousands of hours spent perfecting our skills, we can become synonymous with our craft, equating the level of our playing with the value of ourselves. Yet here was someone who knew me simply as an energetic, quirky 8-year-old and appreciated me as much now as she did then. This reminded me that we don’t exist through our instruments, rather our instruments serve as a vessel for us—a means to share our passion, communicate our deepest feelings, and lift up others. It is a gift that I often take for granted.
As Miss G. and I took a stroll down memory lane, she recalled that I have an amazing mother. Indeed, how many of us harpists have benefited from an incredibly dedicated parent who tuned and toted our harps for us? Or a mentor who encouraged us to get back on the horse (er…harp) after yet another failed audition or disappointing lesson? Amazingly enough, my mother is not only my biggest supporter, but the reason I even play the harp at all. If she hadn’t spotted that cute little Dusty Strings in the corner of my neighbor’s house, would I have ever found my plucky passion?
Above all, I realized that being open to life’s twists and turns is the great joy of being alive. As challenging as these times are, with so many unknowns in the future, it is easy (and understandable) to close off and shut down. Rather than face new situations with fear, I urge you to choose love. Love is seeing your family in the face of a stranger. Love is making a mistake and accepting your imperfect self with humor and understanding. Love is looking at the glass half full and being grateful for what is. At the end of the day, an unexpected detour could ultimately become one of the most meaningful interactions of your life if you’re open to it. Wherever you are, know that you have so much to offer this world—whether it’s through your music-making or by simply being you. •
Grace Browning, principal harpist of the Rochester Philharmonic and Santa Fe Opera, has been harping for 25 years from coast to coast. In addition to performing, Grace enjoys writing, teaching, hosting concerts, Instagramming, and spoiling her sweet rescue pup, Annie. Follow her on Instagram at @operazzi33 and stay tuned for her next Harp Column Instagram takeover.