The Ghost in the Gate


By Elizabeth Speth

This is a true story.  A ghost story.

It’s a story about a woman aged enough to have an old-fashioned name like Harriet.  Harriet was also old enough to have experienced losses in her life, some significant, some her fault and some not.

She lived alone — sometimes sad — far, far away from the city.  Her old house was a family place, built a century before on a grassy plain under a wide blue sky.

She had several cranky old horses, and a naughty barking dog.  Horses and dog destroyed the garden Harriet planted every year, greedily tearing up carrots and lettuces, trampling and digging, until she wanted to give up on the garden.

She was old enough to know about giving up on things.

But she loved warm, sweet tomatoes in September.  So she did not let the garden die.

Instead she built a fence.  It was crooked, loopy and drunken-looking, but it blocked the garden from those who would do it harm.

She found that she needed a gate.  So she bought an old one from a neighbor.  Rusted, bent and blistered, with a tiny metal plaque affixed to it that said in faded words:  “Black Hills Fence Co.  South Dakota” under a faint buffalo silhouette.

A gate is a point of entry, or it can be an impediment to the same.  So the woman brought home that old gate, bouncing around in the bed of her truck, watching it through the mirror as she bumped over rutted dirt roads.

With some difficulty, she mounted the gate to a wobbly post, smashing her thumb in the process.  No one knew about her smashed thumb, how it throbbed for days.  There was no one to share that information, to cluck over the blackened nail, or roll eyes when she complained about it too much.

The gate hung crookedly — it had been hard to hang by herself — but inexplicably it swung freely.  This pleased and surprised her.

The naughty dog, a small, fat, white terrier, dug a hole under the gate and passed smoothly through it like a chute, in and out of the garden at will.

But the gate kept the horses at bay, and the carrots, lettuces, cucumbers and mostly the tomatoes grew.

There was, Harriet saw immediately,  something strange about the vegetables.  Every morning, she came out to find the soil beneath them cool and damp, though she never watered.  The leaves stretched and grew and budded, and not an insect molested them.

Sometimes, she would spend the afternoon out in the garden, because she felt at peace there.  She would pick a few stray weeds — there weren’t many — and listen to birds.  Though there wasn’t the faintest hint of a breeze, and nothing else moved in the stillness, the gate would rattle itself at her periodically.

Not in a hostile way, Harriet thought.  It was more like a dog shaking itself.  She didn’t understand it, but it soothed her somehow.

One morning Harriet came out to the gate, and she found all the horses’ manure piled neatly in her wheelbarrow, the old pitchfork leaning up against the fence.  She looked around her at the clean pasture, as if trying to see who had told a joke.  The cranky old horses pricked their ears at her, a new friendliness in their eyes.

On another day, harassed by the heat, Harriet approached the gate with her arms full of tree branch trimmings.  She was tired and sad, and thinking of things she regretted, and her loneliness made a kind of hollow sound in her brain.  She didn’t like trimming trees, and the branches scratched now at her eyes and arms.  But she meant to stack them in the back of the garden so the horse wouldn’t get at them, eat them, and grow sick.

She drew a long, tired breath, preparing to drop the branches and open the gate.  But the gate rattled then, and the chain lock fell away.  And then it swung open for her, soundlessly.  Harriett was taken aback.

She was also deeply grateful.

Harriet began to notice other things about the gate.  On days the wind did blow, it coaxed a deep, moaning sound out of the posts, like lowing cattle.  Occasionally it sounded like a piano, warm, honey notes of a saloon ballad that plunked happily into the dust at her feet.

Her naughty barking dog stopped barking, though he was still fat and usually dirty.  Harriet watched him pass back and forth through the hole he’d dug under the gate, and the bottom rail scratched his bristly old back as the dog’s eyes half-closed in bliss.

On winter mornings, wind and rain brought the smell of coffee and bacon through the gate.

gate 3

Of a warm summer morning, the faint smell of baking biscuits lingered there.

In the evening, there was woodsmoke and whiskey, spiraling up into the sighing trees.

During thunderstorms or other catastrophic events, the horses gathered around the gate as if for comfort, and wild vetch twined purple flowers around its rusted corners as lavender bunched beneath it.

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And Harriet understood that her gate was haunted.  She also knew that all signs pointed to the fact that her ghost was a cowboy.  Not the young, firm-jawed, lean-hipped rodeo variety of cowboy, but rather an older version, with busted-up, poorly-healed bones, sun spots, and eyes the pale blue of soft, faded denim, hidden in wrinkles he’d earned staring past wide horizons.

He was the kind of old cowboy who opened gates for a lonely, tired woman, who kept gardens watered and manure picked up.  He convinced the dog to behave, and comforted horses with gnarled old hands.

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She knew that, though her cowboy was a kind ghost, he was not an angel.  She was old enough to know no good cowboy was ever an angel.

And so Harriet came to understand that people who have lived long enough to be sad, without hope of circumstances ever really changing — without a miraculous happy ending — can get through somehow.  They can learn to watch for moments of warmth and consideration.  She understood that not all good things can be seen.

She learned that she was not alone.

As I said, this is a true story.  A ghost story.


A Few Thoughts on Women — None Original

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  • Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
  • And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
  • Well done,  Sister Suffragette! — Mrs. Banks

By Elizabeth Speth

A woman of a certain age — let’s say she was just about to turn 48 — was walking through a deep woods, enjoying the loamy smell of undergrowth, and flecks of blue sky visible through ancient treetops.  She breathed deeply, eyes closed, and nearly squished an enormous frog directly in her path.

The frog fixed intense, bulging eyes on her.  His throat throbbed as his wide mouth opened, and he exclaimed:  “Kiss me!  Kiss me, and I’ll turn into a handsome prince!”

The woman’s own eyes widened.  “You spoke!” she marveled.

“Of course I did!”  said the frog.  “I’m a handsome prince.  Kiss me and release me, and I’m yours!  Hurry up!  Let’s get on with it!”

The woman just stared at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” demanded the frog, and he seemed to snap his tiny webbed fingers at her.  “What are you waiting for?  Kiss me, damnit! Don’t you want a handsome prince?”

“Truthfully?” said the woman, “At this point in my life, I’m really more interested in a talking frog.”

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“I can’t decide whether I’m a good girl wrapped up in a bad girl, or if I’m a bad girl wrapped up in a good girl. And that’s how I know I’m a woman!” ― C. Joybell C.

I am, unmistakably, a woman.  There is just no hiding the fact.  There have been times in my life when I have regretted it. When it seemed that men were having all the fun.

I am older now, and smarter, and fortunately, I live in a world where that is mostly no longer true.  There are still some holdouts — places, people and situations try to cast femaleness as synonymous with misfortune.  In my life, though, there is an H.R. Department that takes care of holdouts.

The thing that I eventually figured out is that men don’t really have all the fun.  ‘Fun’ doesn’t belong to anyone — it is actually just a matter of permission.  We have to give it to ourselves.  Permission to say and do what we like.  To have opinions that may ruffle or surprise.  To sprawl, to occupy and claim a space.  To be loud sometimes, vigorous.  To take risks.  To take time for ourselves.  To protect ourselves.  To put ourselves first. To say no.  Or yes.

It has taken me the majority of my life so far to learn about permission.  Which is fine.  Having fun toward the end of the party is better than having no fun at the party.

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“It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman. Phenomenally.” ― Maya Angelou

It cheers me, looking at our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters and our daughters, to see that women are coming into themselves a lot sooner with every generation.  We have hundreds of years of women before us to thank for that.  Knowing full well they would not see change in their own lifetimes, they grimly did battle for us.  We owe it to them to own what they won.

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Now, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, touting equality while occasionally batting my eyes to get what I want.  I love a door opened for me if my hands are full, and I usually won’t take a seat when it’s offered, but I appreciate the gesture.  I may need it someday.  I suspect I am still entitled to first rescue from a sinking ship (although I share a lifeboat with the children).

But I know there is a quieter, gentler way to get where I am going, because that is who I am.  Thank goodness for red lipstick, and hats with flowers on the brim.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being womanly.  Many men adore us for a reason.


 And I love them back.  Boy, do I.  They are wonderful.  I love how they think.  I love their deep voices, their vigorous humor.  I am pleased about all the ways they are different from me.   They certainly make life more interesting.  We go fairly well together, men and women, once we learn to synthesize ourselves.  Once we figure out the choreography.

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She listened to her heart above all other voices.  – Kobi Yamada

But thank goodness I know trying to be a man is a waste of a good woman.

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“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ― Roman Payne

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

By Elizabeth Speth


How I love a good dinner party.

It is one of life’s best joys.  I haven’t thrown nearly enough of them in my life, but I do understand the essential elements. You must have food.  You must have drink.  You must have conversation, which necessitates people.  For the conversation to be enjoyable, I suggest people you find pleasant and/or interesting.

A few other things that are nice to have but not necessary:

— Flowers, fragrant if possible, low to the table so people can see each other over them.

— Candlelight, because it makes us look younger, and also hides the cooking splotches on your clothing.  The warm, flickering glow casts merciful doubt upon the arugula stuck in your teeth, that large splash of wine on your lapel from your too-vigorous toast, the dents in your ancient cutlery, and the stains on your faded linens, which occasionally double as dish towels.

— Live music, as from a moody, long-haired Spanish guitar player cuddling his instrument on a stool in front of the moonlit window, or a gypsy violinist, or a tuxedoed string quartet.  I’ve never experienced any of these scenarios, but I think they would be great.

A dinner party can be an impromptu affair.  Recently a few family members and I emptied out my sister’s refrigerator, and trooped out to her  deck juggling containers of humus, cheese, olives, crackers and the like, and a jug of wine.  We laughed and talked for hours while a huge bank of summer thunderclouds darkened over our heads, and only scurried inside when the first clap of thunder coincided with drops the size of salad plates landing on our heads.  That was a very fine dinner party.

Swap out the wine for water, the lamb shanks for French fries, the finger bowls for pre-moistened, packaged towelettes from the take-out barbecue place, and you’ve still got a dinner party as long as you’ve got at least one other person to sip and sup with you.


Because eating and drinking and talking together is a wonderful, intimate, convivial, bonding, dare I say loving thing to do amongst humans.  It elevates sustenance of the body to nourishment of the soul.

It’s the closest you can get to people without taking off your clothing, or violating your marriage vows or sterling reputation.  For the space of that meal, until the chewing and swallowing are done, you must look each other in the eye, listen and speak, give and take.  You must let down your defenses as you replenish yourselves.  It’s a glorious exercise in mutual vulnerability.

So, working from that premise, I posed this question to scores of friends and acquaintances:

What person, living or dead, would you like to have at your dinner table?

I’ll start.  I think about this a lot, usually while I cook.  There are so many people with whom I long to break bread, and the social barriers of polite restraint.

teddy eating

Teddy Roosevelt, for instance.  I want to talk to him about parenting.  I want to see him raise his bushy eyebrows at us leaning in,  wondering if we can ‘have it all’, be good parents and big career builders too.  I want to hear how he informed visiting heads of state from countries like Japan and Germany that their work was done for the day, because he had a standing date at 4:30 pm to play touch football with his children on the lawns at Sagamore Hill.  The heads of state were always invited to join in, but the appointment non-negotiable.  I want to ask him how he overcame physical limitations to embrace a life of such adventure.  I’d like to know how in the world he endured the loss of his wife and his mother in the same day.

I’d love to eat dinner with the first fellow who ever thought to eat an oyster.  He probably had a lot of other really marvelous ideas.

I’d have Dorothy Parker for dinner in a New York second, but I’d water down her drinks and keep an eagle eye on my husband.  Parker is of course famous for saying that she likes to have a martini, maybe two at the most.  At three she’s under the table.  At four she’s under the host.

Jane Goodall would be a wonderful dinner companion.  She would not be a conversation-hog.  In fact, you’d likely never know she was there but for a pair of watchful, intelligent eyes peering out of the floral arrangement. Occasionally you’d hear the ‘scritch-scritch’ of a pen as she observed the dinnertime behavior, especially when the more bombastic guests started chest-pounding.


Jane quietlly monitoring the dinner conversation from behind the floral arrangement.

I’d love to eat dinner with Robert Duvall.  With Anthony Bourdain and Erik Ripert.  The guy who thought up the show Deadwood, David Milch.  I wouldn’t even ask him to clean up his language.  He could lay waste to the dining room with F-bombs if he wanted.

But enough about me.  Here’s what you all said.  In some cases, I have condensed and paraphrased, so please forgive me.  Curse me for it, if you like.  Call me names, but never call me late for dinner.

There was, amongst you, some duplication of dinner invitees, so I’ll cover that first.  Jesus Christ was the most popular answer, perhaps not surprisingly, and the reasoning varied.  (We all know what Jesus looks like at supper, so I have skipped the photograph.)

My lovely friend Bridget, a missionary who devotes her life to rescuing children from the sex trade in a very poor country, explained her choice:

I would have answers to hundreds of questions, like are there aliens, who first thought lobsters looked delicious.  Since His first miracle was water to wine, we’d be having the best, and Italian food, lots and lots of Italian. There would be great conversation, joy , peace and laughs because God does have a sense of humor.  I want to ask him: ‘Hitler. Why?’

My sister Anna is at the very least agnostic, if not atheistic about her beliefs, although we have certainly discussed at length the historical proof of Christ’s existence.  She said she wanted to ask Jesus:

Are you sorry you didn’t just lay low?  I mean, wouldn’t you rather have led a quiet carpenter’s life? Did you really maybe mean to be a Buddhist?

Another popular dining guest choice was Abraham Lincoln, and I agree that his eloquence at the dinner table, his sensibilities, intelligence and kindness, would be a thing to behold.

My husband Neil’s rationale for inviting him:

He was a good storyteller. He had a sense of history, and such a great sense of humor. I want to know what he’d have done about Reconstruction, and what he thought of America today.

My friend Lucinda on Abe:

How do you make decisions that result in death and suffering for so many no matter what you choose to do?

A few chose Thomas Jefferson.  He’d be on my list too.  He was a great locavore, and I think he’d have loved our California foothill wines.

My friend Mark on Jeffersonian company:

Tommy Jefferson would be on the top of my list. He invented our method of surveying, sent out Lewis & Clark, had a vision for this country before most,  He was into bi-racial (er… let’s just say  Mark said ‘relations’), and I’m pretty sure he brought an end to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was a little clingy to the French, though…


Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello. Perhaps we should eat at his place…

My thoughtful friend Christian opined that Jefferson, and some other historic leaders,  would have words of wisdom for a country that frequently finds itself torn in two, politically:

I’d love to have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over for a long meal, multiple courses, dinner, coffee, and brandy, to discuss how they compromised their personal beliefs to write a Constitution that the States would ratify. Also, I would have the prophet Mohammed over for a simple halal meal, to discuss how his followers have perverted his words (or maybe he would feel they haven’t) to justify some terrible positions regarding women in the 21st century, and dealing with the rest of the world’s non-believers. I feel like we need more leaders who can build consensus, rather than stake out a position because it’s popular with their followers. I would think a couple of dinners like this might just be the ticket towards some ideas to heal our society / world.

A lot of you would like to have dinner again with family members who have died.  My Uncle John comes from a long line of artists, and he very much embraces modern technology in his work.  He opted to send out an invitation to dine to his deceased father, Merle, also a man of considerable talent.

I’d love to turn his designs into laser art,  John said.

My friend Ken suffered through the agony of his father’s dementia, watching the man fade away mentally long before he did physically.

With all the conversations we had, I would love one more, he said, and there is a lot of heartbreak behind that simple statement.

A lot of my female friends wanted another meal with their grandmothers, myself included.  We want to talk to them about their wonderful contributions to history, about those old recipes that were such a big part of our childhood.  It is our consolation for growing old, I guess, for the slow murdering of our vanity by  time, that our daughters’ daughters will not cease loving us.

But historical figures definitely carried the day, in terms of desirable diners.

Take my friend Crockett, a modern-day man of the frontier if ever there was one (his address contains the words ‘outlaw’ and ‘trail’), who chose:

Etta Place…  I’ve got not a clue to where/ how she disappeared so successfully. Also Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy).  These are the things I would ask him:  Where is the Rhodes Gold Mine, where is the Lost Dutchman and where is Butch Cassidy Buried?

Laurie said:  I’d go with Anne Frank, because she left so much of her life’s story unsaid. I would love to sit next to her and let her be a child again at a table where she could eat to her heart’s content and talk as loud as she wanted.

Spencer’s selection:  Alexander the Great. Questions… What makes you so confident? How were you able to conquer so much territory? HOW DID YOU DIE?  (Illness?  Poison?)

My friend Jacqueline, a woman with a colorful artistic personality, would gravitate to the table with Pablo Picasso and  Frida Kahlo, and they would eat paella.  A table always needs an artist, she explains.


I imagine Frida would want to light up an e-cigarette after her dinner at my friend Jacqueline’s house, and damn the health risks.

Laura, my literary and nature-loving friend: 

It would have to be Henry David Thoreau, though he wouldn’t care for me, nor would he drink with me. He was not, in general, a fan of women, nor did he drink. He was a rather stiff and solitary fellow, as Emerson said of him, “One might as well put one’s arm around a young pine tree.” But he did like conversation, and I don’t believe he hated women, just didn’t have much use for the overall frivolity factor, in either men or women. So perhaps we would find something in common.  Hard to say. Many people found Thoreau off-putting and difficult. But then, this could also be said of me.

(For the record, Laura is neither.)

My son Leland:

I’d like to get ridiculously drunk with Ulysses S. Grant. I’d want to figure out how to be a strategist like he was.

Uh, Leland?  Not until you are 21 (you’ve got three more years, young man!), and I respectfully submit that the first step to being a great strategist is sobriety.

Finally, a last few invites to share with you.

My nephew Andres:

Bob Marley. Just to listen to this man who was so at peace with his life. I’d ask him questions about his  history, what he thinks about modern medicine, what he thinks the purpose of life is.

Andres did say what would be on the menu for his dinner with Bob, and I’ll just say that they’re both going to be mighty hungry when they’ve finished that particular form of…er…refreshment.

Tracey, my adventurous hiking friend:

Amelia Earhart is THE woman.  She said:  “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.  Decide if the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is — stop worrying.”  I would love to ask her if indeed it was worth it. 

My niece Olivia:

Esther Earl.  She was Sixteen when she died of thyroid cancer.  Through the Harry Potter Alliance she got books to kids who didn’t have access to them.  She was just a normal girl who made such a difference in a short time.  I’d  want to cook fancy food for her.  We’d have a proper English tea time.

From my niece Mari:

Carl Sagan.   I’d ask him if he’d finally made contact with other life forms. I’d make him seared ahi, sautéed spinach and mashed garlic taters.


Make sure you seat Carl next to a bowl of fruit, which he often finds helpful in demonstrating the concepts of dimensionality.

And Erin, my wonderful horse-loving, Wild West-embracing, very literate riding buddy:

Virginia Woolf, Queen Noor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and also my great grandfather who rode with Wild Bill Cody and broke horses as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

My son Lyle:

Bill Murray. He is an anomaly. Humor and personality.


Ok, Lyle, but I hope you don’t mind crumbs in the sheets.

Ideally, of course, the dinner party ends here — with you ringing a little bell (which summons people to clear our dishes, put food away, render the kitchen spotless), and me fetching the cigars and brandy.

It’s been lovely.  Let’s do it again.  And soon.

messy after