Uncle Sam, Dad, and Me: A Taxing Relationship

Tax time always reminds me of my father. When I was small, I watched as my father took on the task of “doing the taxes.” Every April 14th, he set himself up at the kitchen table with a pile of mishmashed documents, muttering swears under his breath as he scribbled, erased, and reworked the data.  Dad was the master of the loophole and fudging numbers, knowing exactly where to tweak a digit without fear of an audit. To his credit, he seldom got hauled in for an “accounting error.” Instead, he toyed with working for the Internal Revenue Service, going so far as to take the civil service test, pass it, interview, and ultimately decline the offer of employment. His work at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts was far more lucrative than what the government paid, and since he worked the night shift, he could nap on the job. He knew he couldn’t snooze at his desk at the IRS, making his life as a blue-collared machinist preferable to a career dressed in a shirt and tie and sitting upright.

Dad’s professed acumen with a 1040 and its multiple schedules gave birth to a side gig. He did the taxes for most of the guys in “the shop,” my grandparents, and anyone who needed help navigating the convoluted forms. Again, he employed his skills–a little heavy on the charitable donations, a little less on the bank interest. It was the 60s, a simpler and less precise  time when the use of computers the size of an entire room had yet to manage the banking world. Paper, pen, adding machines, and old fashioned manual typewriters kept track of transactions. Dad easily snuck a few adjustments by the discerning eye of an auditor. He was clever, if not also a bit dishonest. I never questioned or doubted my father. To me, Dad’s shifty ways were normal.

Propping me on his knee, Dad showed me his calculations and how the numbers interacted to produce an amount of tax owed. I was probably only six-years-old the first time I flipped to the back of the IRS manual to find the chart, sliding my finger down the margin to my father’s income range, then moving to the right to the “Married Filing Jointly” column. Like magic, there was Dad’s tax liability. I remember giggling at this secret my father was letting me in on. For years to come, I sat at his side, learning to fill out the forms, curious about the process without ever knowing the life skill my father was teaching me. When we finished, he always gave me the extra, unused forms and I subjected more than a few of my dolls to my version of tax prep. Didn’t every kid do that?

This past Monday, I filed my taxes. It’s harder now to play the system, and being of a more honorable nature than Dad, I wouldn’t even try. Still, in the tradition of my father, I waited until the last minute to file and pay my bill. I heard my father’s voice clearly as I procrastinated:

 “Why the hell would you pay early if you owe them money? Keep the money in the bank until the very last minute and then write the check. Why give them use of your money when you could be making money on it yourself?”

Dad loved money: making it, saving it, investing it. He was shrewd and calculating. And maybe a little devious. 

In the 1990s, I assumed the responsibility for our family’s taxes–ours and my father’s. Dad sat beside me as Turbotax prompted me for the digits found in Box 1b and I typed the numbers on the computer keyboard as he read to me from his 1099’s–R, DIV, INT, OID. Dad watched in awe as the program whirred through the responses, giving us a real-time calculation at the top of the screen. I loved to hear him say, “Geeze, that’s amazing!” Dad loved technology but for him, this  bordered on miraculous.  In time, he just handed over his half-assed file of tax paperwork, leaving me to plow through his lousy recordkeeping system. Eventually, I just kept the books for him and me. As Dad passed the baton, he never doubted my abilities. He knew I was trained by the best, and now had a computer calculation to back me, in case I screwed up.

In a surprising shift, my father also had a slant on paying his due. I think about his words every year as I send off my small fortune in taxes owed to the IRS: 

“Never complain about paying your taxes. It means you have money to pay taxes on. Be grateful.”

And as much as it pains me to see my bank balance shrink every year, I know he was right. And for Dad’s tutelage and my good fortune, I am grateful.

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