Small Claims Court

CT judicial seal

I laughed at first when I received the letter from Judge Judy’s producer inviting me to fly to California and to appear on that scandalous television program. The show’s producer had found Paul’s small claims lawsuit and realized how entertaining it would be to see people like us making fools of ourselves as we debated the ownership of plants in a garden.

I considered, after refusing Judge Judy’s invitation, that the small claims hearing in tiny Bantam, Connecticut would be just one more unusual and entertaining life experience. During the week leading up to the court date, anxiety made my heart pound and my mind whirl around. No serious thought remained in my consciousness long enough for me to complete even a routine task.

So what if my guts were in knots for a whole week before the Friday hearing? It was my chance to show that my ex-husband is out of his fucking mind. Did I say that? No, of course not; a lady of my background and age would never say something so vulgar.

I was upset from Monday through Thursday, and on Friday afternoon, drove eight miles to my friend Sharon’s house. I’ve known Sharon for more than twenty-five years. She’s a fellow choir member, smart and caring, who has a son my son’s age. As soon as she heard about the upcoming trial, she offered to accompany me and I gratefully accepted.

We drove through a rural, scenic part of northwestern Connecticut, to the Bantam Court complex. As we pulled into the parking area, I glanced to my left and there he was, in a small Honda — Paul, who I hadn’t seen in ten years. At first glance, I didn’t recognize him. After all, it had been ten years since his arrest in August 2005 and he didn’t look the same as on that infamous date. I most likely didn’t either, although I really thought I looked better than during that time of sheer horror.

After I parked, I shared that I felt like throwing up. Sharon sounded a bit concerned, but I assured her I wouldn’t actually throw up; I just felt apprehensive and a bit terrified. We sat for a while in the car, the air-conditioning keeping out the July heat.

Then, we entered the building, which was just like other court houses, only much smaller, with an x-ray for purses and a metal detector to walk through. We walked along the narrow hall to join others waiting to enter the courtroom. Most everyone wore casual clothing or the work clothes of a mason or painter. One woman wore shorts and a tank top and had a large, but delicate, tattoo of five portraits across her tanned upper back. She and I had caught each other’s eyes earlier and smiled, in mutual support, although I knew nothing about her.

Paul wore a long sleeved lavender shirt and sported a small gray ponytail He carried a thicker middle, which must have concealed his colostomy bag and whatever else he had to wear after his bladder was removed.

The judge, a small, elderly man who had to strain in order to climb up to the judge’s platform, appeared pale and frail. As soon as he began speaking, his words flung that impression aside. He was sharp and kind and focused on what was important. He missed nothing.

The first thing the judge did was to tell everyone to leave the courtroom and go out into the small, narrow hall to discuss the issue that brought them to the court. He directed everyone to make every attempt to work it out. Those who were able to come to an agreement had their cases heard first. Usually it was just a payment schedule of $40 a week, or some such arrangement.

Paul and I and Sharon stood in a corner. I was barely breathing.

“Are you a lawyer?” he asked Sharon.

“No,” she replied.

“A friend, for moral support?”

“Yes,” she said.

Sharon had a pleasant, neutral expression on her face. I could feel tension stiffen my mouth and eyes.

I could see he recognized Sharon but didn’t remember her name. He was more stubborn and sure of his position than I expected and after a few words it was clear that we weren’t going to come to any agreement.

We returned to the small courtroom and waited, listening to others argue their positions. As I watched the clock, every five minutes seemed like an hour. Contractors protested about non-payment for work done and homeowners complained about work their contractor hadn’t finished that they’d paid for. The compassionate judge paid close attention to all of these cases. Finally, he called Held vs. Sherman.

He really didn’t know which of us was which and said that Paul’s past legal issues had no bearing on this case, a fair statement. Paul said right away that he had been in prison, so the subject was out in the open. I sensed that no one paid attention to what was being said and the conversation was only between Paul and me and the judge.

Paul’s illogical reasoning was that we had a pre-nuptial agreement where we agreed what was his was his and what was mine would remain mine in case of a divorce, but when I filed for divorce he didn’t get a chance to go after my assets and I had so much more than he. The only thing he said that was relevant was that he had paid for plants and wanted them back.

I responded that he had no right to them, as the house had been mine from the beginning and he had never shared in the cost for anything, whether household bills or major constructions, like the addition to the house and swimming pool. The judge said that he thought we might be in the wrong court. After hearing us speak, he said we’d be notified of his decision whether or not I would have to pay Paul $5000.

Thursday’s mail brought the Notice of Judgment or Disposition which stated that the case has been dismissed. The judge wrote that the reason was that there was a failure to present a prima facie case.

On Sunday, Paul wrote a long, threatening email, stating his intention to sue me in a jury trial for access to his plants. When I consider how upset I was the week before the small claims court event, I think I may allow him access to remove what he wants and just get it over with. Afterwards, he can gloat about how he won and forced me to allow him to dig up whatever plants he still dreams about after all these years. I can survive an hour or so to be rid of him. I know I would suffer way too much to engage in any more court appearances.

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Judge Judy


A few weeks ago, I received a phone call, one of the many, unidentified calls that’s usually a solicitation. I picked it up and then immediately hung up, to silence the ringer. But the phone rang again and it was the same number. Curious, I answered it. As soon as I said hello, a pleasant woman told me that she was a producer for the television program,  Judge Judy.

She said she was calling to invite me to appear on the show, where I would face my ex-husband Paul, and respond to his lawsuit, in front of Judge Judy and nine-million daily viewers. She informed me that Judge Judy is a retired Supervising Judge of the New York City Family Court and the justice that she deals out is legally binding. A few times, I’d seen her ream out one of the people appearing before her on TV. She scolded, permitted no whining and verbally whipped the guilty party. She was tough.

I listened to the producer’s whole presentation, laughing inside, a huge grin on my face.  Since receiving the Summons from the Small Claims Court, I fleetingly thought that this dispute, for money and plants, was the sort of ridiculous lawsuit that would fit well on the show.

Judge Judy’s producer told me that the way they find entertaining cases is to search lists of upcoming small claims suits, in courts all over the country. She also said that they would pay for me (and a friend) to fly to Los Angeles. A limo would take us to a hotel, which they would pay for. The next day, my friend and I would be driven to the studio in Hollywood and, if I lost, they would pay the $5000.00 to my ex-husband. I actually laughed, not at her, but because the situation was so bizarre. It felt like a comical, yet significant dream.

She implied that my ex-husband had accepted the offer and was willing to travel to California. This time, he could be a different kind of media celebrity, from what he was in 2005, when newspapers and television news programs announced his arrest for receipt of child pornography.

Amused at the absurdity of the lawsuit, I laughed to myself the rest of the day, walking around with a silly smile.

Then I stopped laughing.

In the mail, I received a letter informing me the date of the hearing and that Small Claims suits were held in the Superior Court. Me! I’ve never been to court (except to witness Paul’s arraignment) and before this, have never been sued. Until I opened that envelope giving me a real date, the threat of having Paul traipse through my garden making cuttings of what he wants and collect a $5000 check from me seemed like an amusing prank. I believed that the court would see it as a ridiculous demand and throw it out before it happened. I was wrong.

The date of the trial is scheduled for June 26th at 2:00 PM. This afternoon I wrote to the clerk of the court and requested a change of date, because I have a conflict. It’s the ‘Pass the Gavel’ party, where I will become the president of Westport Rotary. I also informed the clerk about the trip my grandson and I have planned right after the 4th of July.

I’m relieved that the event is postponed and I don’t have to anticipate driving fifty-nine miles to confront Paul right now.

While searching Google for information and comments from people who have appeared on Judge Judy, numerous sites showed up. They detail outrageous personal experiences people had on the show. I’m glad I won’t suffer a similar horrific event.

I’ll just have to wait until the trial is re-scheduled and learn what happens then. I’ll let you know. But it will be on not Judge Judy.

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Two Documents on My Desk


Close to the keyboard on my desk is a small pile of papers. The one on top is a copy of the Centralized Small Claims Answer form. A week ago, I mailed the original to the court, with a copy to my ex-husband, Paul. It isn’t due until June 4th, but I’ve sent it in early, to get it done, to get it out of my thoughts, off my list.

Below this irritating, menacing legal document, is a well written article from the Westport Minuteman newspaper that gives information about the Westport Historical Society’s Hidden Garden Tour. My garden is one of them being shown this year and I’ve been working hard to get it ready for visitors.

The two events are at odds, yet are related, both having to do with plants and flowers. On the first, a demand for my appearance at the Superior Court hearing in Bantam, CT, I’ve written that my ex-husband doesn’t own the plants he put in the ground years ago. He also shouldn’t receive $5000 from me because I won’t allow him to dig up what he wants. The second part has to do with the grueling work I’ve been doing over the last month to make sure my garden looks as beautiful as it can, to benefit this respected community organization. It’s about the beauty of azaleas, iris, rhododendrons, and rock garden plants, not about ownership.

I separate sections from enormous groupings of hosta and Japanese painted fern. Then I attempt to cut the mat of solidly woven epimedium roots. My shoulder suffers from slamming the shovel over and over on, so I can separate a good-sized chunk of the epimedium from the rest. I move these plants to another area in the garden. I’ve cut Paul off as well, to separate myself from him.

This is the sort of work my ex-husband did in the garden, before the invasion of Federal Officers, before the legal horror and the decade-long sentence, before he attempted to reclaim the plants as his own. Gardening is not an overwhelming experience for me, merely one of enjoyable hard work and satisfaction when I finish and see that what I’ve done looks good. For him it appeared to be his escape into bliss and from the life of teaching as well as his demons.

This morning, after church, a friend asks me how things are going with my garden. She knows it’s on the Tour. I tell her what I’ve been doing, the pruning, mulching, putting in new plants. She raises her voice, impatient with my response. Momentarily confused, I can’t understand why she doesn’t realize what I said. Outraged, she’s asking about the legal threat. I’m thinking about the garden and my part in the tour.  Most of the time, I’m able to forget the monetary menace and his demand to come on my property. Usually, I think about the good parts of my life and what I need to do to make the garden more pleasing.

There’s a knock at the door, just now, in the light rain. Luis, the man who mows my lawn, has come to pick up the log splitter in the back woods by the property line. It weighs at least five hundred pounds and has flat tires. Luis can’t get it out alone and will return later this afternoon with his cousin, so they can pull it out of the woods and load it onto his truck. We’ve come to an agreement on the price and he’s already given me the cash. I’ll send that to Paul, if he drops the lawsuit.

Another envelope from my ex-husband arrives in the mail. I recognize his writing among the stack of bills and ads. I wonder why he uses his new name, Egnaro Rewolf, instead of his own. Maybe it’s a way of hiding on Facebook, on photographic sites of delicate little girls, in his new neighborhood. Although I hear he’s open about his prison sentence and being a sex offender, I can imagine him verbally eviscerating the authorities for stomping on his creativity, preventing him, a real artist, from producing original works of art.

With hen scratches on small pieces of paper, he again lists books that the moving men, who picked up his property a month ago, didn’t get. Some I threw out years ago, including art books that had nude photos of children, such as Sally Mann’s respected and critically acclaimed book, The Immediate Family. It went in the dumpster, along with brochures and photos of nudist camps, and drawings of his students. Ten years ago, I was suspicious of his unhealthy fascination with youth, which contributed to his downfall, and wanted nothing related to that in my home. Another time, for a different man— all that might have been fine. For my ex-husband, it wasn’t.

The rain has stopped and Luis’ cousin has arrived to help. I wave as they leave the driveway, pulling a trailer with the log splitter secured.

One more reminder of his presence is gone. Another area cleared out. Now I can yank the weeds where the log splitter rested for so many years. There are only a few more things to accomplish before the garden will be ready for the Tour. I hope you’ll come. It’s on Sunday, June 14th.

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A Summons


In my garden this spring morning, I meet the pruning expert from the nursery. We walk around in the steady rain. He’s going to trim back some of the large shrubs that squeeze others and remove a skinny maple that crowds a specimen beech. His enthusiasm bubbles up and my step lightens while we discuss what he proposes. I love making plans and being in charge of this breathtakingly beautiful space.

The garden is thirsty and sucks up the much needed downpour. A few minutes later, it turns to drizzle. Tiny weeds will be triple the size tomorrow when it is expected to be warmer. I’ll be relieved not to have to soak the new rhododendrons and azaleas that were planted a few weeks ago. Every other day I traipsed through the woods, taking care not to step in a leaf covered low spot, so I could arrange the oscillating sprinkler. I managed to soak myself every time. For all the years my ex-husband created beauty in the garden, he considered it his. Every spring, he invited me to admire the earliest spring flowers with him and appreciate what was in bloom. I followed behind, walking carefully, so I wouldn’t tread on any rare or special plants. If my foot stepped on one, he’d bark at me. That verbal slap spoiled the experience, and as a result, I had little interest in the flowers and foliage that surrounded the house.

Now, after ten years of having him gone, the garden is mine. The first five years, I felt as if I was barely keeping up with maintaining what was there. A college student, who became a family friend, weeded while he was home for the summer. Then he graduated and moved away, leaving me in charge of its care.

Just this year, I see the garden as a whole and not merely sections that need attention. My life in this beautiful space is more than pruning, weeding, and maintaining. I’ve planted all the hosta seeds from the dried stalks I collected last fall. With today’s rain and warmer weather coming tomorrow, there’s a good chance that many will germinate.

And now my ex-husband has been out of prison for a year. He’s bought a house in Litchfield County and wants to take what plants he desires from my garden. I’ve said, No. It’s not that there aren’t enough flowers. The garden is massive and there’s plenty to share. The reason is I don’t want him here. He has never been able to understand laws, rules, and requests that might control his actions. He wants what he wants, whether plants, photos or handing out candy to his students, even when told not to by his principal.

I fear I wouldn’t be able to control him once he entered the garden. He wouldn’t leave if I told him to. He’s stated that he regards the plants as his property, even though they’re on my land and therefore legally mine. Such fine points he considers irrelevant. Unable to understand this fact, he’s sent me a summons, demanding the maximum amount possible in Small Claims Court, as well as a long list of flowers.

I tell myself not to get angry or upset. I’ll respond by sending in my official Answer, as required by the summons, and proceed with what the court says. It’s a new experience. After all, I spent two years under threat of arrest as well as having my house seized by the Federal Government, due to my ex-husband’s actions, and I survived. This should be a walk in the park compared with those years.

It’s life. It’s another experience. I could give in and say, “Sure, come on by and dig up whatever you like.” But I’m done being bullied. I have my limits.

Meanwhile, I smile and with a light footstep, meander through my garden. My eyes appreciate the swaths of pink, red, orange and white of mature azaleas as well as those just planted. I listen to the sound of the birds overhead and feel the light breeze on my face. The garden is a place of perfection, where fears and troubles are blocked and cannot enter. I’m now surrounded by goodness and peace.

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I Need to Relax


Among the rush, the responsibilities we all face and work that must be completed, I listen to friends speak about how good it is to relax. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, vigorous exercise, leisurely walks, gazing at a beautiful nature scene, listening to birds. Shall I go on? I’m sure you can add activities that might help you relax and perhaps you’ve tried one or more yourself.

I bought a series of CDs on mindful meditation and listened to one of them, just once. The narrator’s voice irritated me. She spoke too slowly. I put it back in the case, never to hear it again. The others in the set are still wrapped in cellophane, waiting to be opened. I rejected the whole lot based on one impression.

There are many paths I could take to relax, to calm my mind. I don’t allow myself to try any of them or even make an effort to take the first step. I’m too caught up in the jumble of demands that pound my thoughts.

It’s as if all these very important activities must be completed now, or they’re already late. They fight amongst each another. Their rumble keeps out the slower, more thoughtful possibility of doing something else.

I realize that if I lessen the furious interchange in my mind, life would be easier. According to others who meditate or relax by some other manner, the chatter in the mind is calmed and clarity rules.

  • Productivity would rise.
  • Organization of tasks would become easier.
  • I’d be happier.

Accomplishing even one of those three promises would be welcome.  So, why haven’t I done this already?

Habit! That’s the answer.

Last year, I read a wonderful book about habits. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, gives specific suggestions how to build a way of life that’s positive and other ways to eliminate those habits that are harmful. I was so caught up with this book I practically memorized some sections. I underlined paragraphs and phrases that seemed important. Every day I read something from the book. It had become my bible. And then, one day, clearing up the coffee table in the TV room, I placed it on a bookshelf in my office and forgot exactly where I put it. Out of view, its importance faded.

How could I have let that happen? It certainly wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t tired of the book. If anything, it had become more important.

My brain experiences a whirlwind of thoughts about work issues, some of which are difficult or challenging, even unpleasant. I have to decide how to quiet my mind and leave room for calmer, bigger ideas and intentions. Can I change the dissonance between the demands of work and other activities that are more important?

Deep breathing helps and I actually do that – occasionally.

Maybe, later today, I’ll open up one of those CDs and listen to it. Perhaps that can be the beginning.


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In the Garden




A tiny moth, its wings whirring so fast I can’t make them out, hovers over the grass. The moth rests on an elongated blade and just as suddenly as I notice it, disappears. The lawn is long and lush, just the way I like it. Only when it still holds the early morning dew and my shoes become wet, do I wish it were shorter.

 I thought I would weed in the upper garden, behind the tall shrubs that flower in the spring, but never get there. The cool shade is too welcome, among the hosta.

 It’s easy to clip off the long seed stems of the large hosta. I have enough plants and don’t want self-sown seedlings sneaking up through the little stones on the path or further crowding the established ones. The immature seed stalks from the smaller varieties, and my favorites with their luscious yellow color, will remain. In the fall, I’ll collect these, allow them to dry and then plant them in the early spring. I remember when my grandson and I planted hundreds of seeds and watched them appear, tiny green mouse ears, under lights in the basement.

 Heavy, healthy, invasive vines are hard to pull out. Some I clip and others I just pull until they give way. Poison ivy, that I never noticed all summer, brushes against my arm and I trudge inside to wash with soap and water.

 Dead branches that fell during some summer rain or wind storm rest on top of azaleas that bloom bright red in the spring. Others stick up between rhododendrons that earlier in the season sport blooms, pure white against their deep green leaves. It’s a relief to remove these eyesores which have bothered me.

 While I’m in the garden, I never hear the cars and trucks roar along my street, the planes on route to the airports. I don’t hear leaf blowers or young people playing in a neighbor’s pool. I do hear the chickadee and the squirrel. A light breeze ruffles my hair. Carefully I watch a white faced hornet fly by. He ignores me and I’m careful not to make any unexpected motion.

When my weeding is done for the day, I notice a hundred seeds that have attached themselves to my light sweater. In the house, one by one, I pull them off. They grip with an unexpected intensity that enables them to be successful, sticking to the animal or person that walks by. They’ll fall off somewhere else and next spring, grow in that new spot, spreading the species, ensuring their success.

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Lessons Learned in Nicaragua


The children attended school for only half a day. After the teaching time was over, they walked home along dusty, rutted roads or went to the program at NicaPhoto, which provided a safe place for them to do homework, take art or dance classes and other activities. Even martial arts classes were offered for older students, all of whom were girls. For some, their only food for the day was the mid-day meal at NicaPhoto. Most of the students knew nothing about growing vegetables until they worked in the community garden and shared their new knowledge with their families.

One afternoon, we took a walking tour around Sonrisa de Dios and saw where many of the children and adults we had met, lived. I had never seen such dire poverty. Most homes were just one room, covered with thick plastic with dirt floors. Many had no latrine. Running water was available only recently and we were proudly shown the water meter that led to each person’s home. Previously, they had to walk a good distance and fill buckets with water every morning and then carry them home.

One woman, mother of three children whose husband had left her and gone to Panama, had no job and no money. We listened to the sad tale of her circumstances and felt genuine affection for her, and appreciation for her help at the worksite. Our inclination was to write a check to help her get a real house, and not live in the black plastic shack. It was gently explained to us that such a step would not be good and might easily backfire, causing her to be resented and have others feel jealousy towards her. Life can be so much more complicated than it appears, especially when outsiders, like us, use our own life experiences to judge what we could do to help.

We learned so many things from our week in Sonrisa de Dios. Every one of us realized how much we have, no matter what our personal circumstances. We are truly fortunate, compared with the people we encountered, who are easily as smart, kind, hard working and interested in bettering themselves as any American.

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