I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Yesterday I did more than whip up corned beef and cabbage...I kept my annual date with the IRS. This story originally was published in 2011 in Silver Boomer's The Harsh and the Heart: Celebrating the Military. Now I'm going to celebrate the vernal equinox Thursday with a lighter heart...this task can be vanquished from my to-do list for yet another year.
A Taxing Topic
As a girl I believed that “beware the Ides of March” related to figuring out income taxes. Back in the early ‘50s, when March 15 was tax deadline, for Daddy it was the worst day of the year. Why he put off his computations until the very last minute still puzzles me. Once the dreaded return actually had been dispatched, my parents positively savored their debates about how they’d spend their expected refund.
“Maybe it’s time for an automatic washer,” Mama would suggest at supper, ladling cream gravy over Daddy’s favorite chicken-fried steak. Or maybe she’d hint that we all needed new shoes.
“No, no. The Chevy needs a new carburetor,” Daddy would respond, smearing margarine on his corn. Or perhaps he’d complain that his mower blades were so worn out that they left our lawn corrugated.
Daddy enjoyed helping me with my algebra homework, so it couldn’t have been toting up the columns of figures that irritated him so. Nonetheless, on tax day he always acted peeved.
At the last possible minute, he would sprawl at the kitchen table, glare at his W-2 form, flip through the pages of his booklet, and gnaw at his yellow Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil. Mama plopped a plate of oatmeal cookies, fresh from the oven, at his elbow, and hovered with a coffee pot.
“Dang government robs a man blind,” he’d growl an hour or two later, slipping his completed forms into an envelope. He’d grudgingly affix a three cent stamp, glance at the clock, and then toss the packet to me. Daddy would never waste gas driving to the post office when he had a preteen daughter lingering nearby, eager for a chance to be helpful.
“Don’t just shove it in the mailbox! The Slauson office only stays open until six. Be sure to get the envelope postmarked or they’ll subtract interest for a late filing!”
“Don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll ride my bike.” And I’d fly down West 59th Place, pigtails flapping in the breeze, musing on Daddy’s baffling attitude.
In my social studies class I’d studied how income taxes originally were levied in the United States to fund the Civil War, and later, World War I. During the Great Depression, taxes began to support programs to put the country back on its feet. In Sunday School I learned that even Joseph and Mary had traveled to Bethlehem to pay taxes. It was clear to me that Daddy, by dutifully filing his taxes on time, despite the furrowed brows and scowls, ensured that our family could hold up our heads with pride. We were solid, albeit somewhat reluctant, citizens!
Later, as a newlywed, I witnessed my husband duplicate Daddy’s antics, practically frothing in panic come income tax day, now April 15. Though Bob had a whole month more to fume and fidget, like Daddy he still waited until the deadline was nigh. Then he’d slouch on the couch, sigh, and then slowly hunch over the coffee table to spend the next several hours scratching away with his Eversharp.
Though I brewed coffee, I didn’t bother baking cookies. By now I’d studied enough anthropology to wonder if this income tax angst simply was a crisis of manhood, some secret long-standing initiation rite handed down from father to son, akin to thrusting a hand into a glove filled with bullet ants or hurtling from a 100-foot tower while land diving in Vanuatu.
“You know, I’d be glad to do the taxes. I can add and subtract,” I offered. Bob had clutched his papers and forms to his chest, mouth agape, staring at me as if I’d proposed he trade his gray flannel suit for my bolero-sleeved dress with its pencil thin tubular skirt.
“I’m the head of the household,” he blustered. “This is a man’s job.”
Scrupulously honest, Bob fretted about tax cheats, and never claimed a dishonest or questionable deduction. Still, he treated me to heated diatribes over the legality and immorality of the 16th Amendment, outlining most of what the IRS and the federal courts now term “frivolous arguments.”
Years later, single once more, I finally filed my own taxes. I’d prepared for the worst, laying in a supply of chamomile tea and peppermint lozenges. To my astonishment, the process proved relatively pain-free. Weeks before the deadline I simply sat down, toted up the figures on my hand-held calculator, twice to ensure accuracy, and sent off the completed form.
To celebrate, I phoned my father.
“Guess what? I just filed my taxes and I’m getting enough on my refund to take a trip to the Bahamas.”
“What did you have to pay the preparer?”
“Not a cent, Daddy. I did it myself.”
At least a minute elapsed before he replied. “You probably made a lot of mistakes. Don’t be surprised when the IRS knocks at your door.”
Eventually I learned that it’s not male or female outlooks, per se, that causes anxiety. Rather it’s more a matter of basic attitude. My second husband had no qualms about delegating me to handle the paperwork in our household. Nor did Ken ever fret about parting with a buck, if he felt that it was well spent. I always paid our bills, so it felt natural to fill out our joint taxes. He’d gladly barbecue a ribeye for me on tax preparation day, and serve it up with a glass of a peppery red Shiraz.
“How’d we do this year?”
“We did just fine. We paid enough to keep the nation’s highways paved and to ensure that hospitals will remain open for our veterans. We’re not getting much back, but we don’t have to send any more in, either.”
“I’ll drink to that,” he’d say, tilting his glass before digging in to his steak.
Widowed last spring, I poured through my tax forms last week and learned I’d be able to file a joint return, claiming my late husband in figuring the standard deduction. I didn’t have to prorate.
“How generous,” I thought, electing the simple 1040A, rather than itemizing.
Even so, because of earnings from my freelance writing and editing, I had to enclose a check for the U.S. Treasury. Fortunately, I’d allowed one of my tiny annuities to accumulate in a savings account all year to cover this anticipated bite.
I stuck the envelope in my roadside mailbox, and flicked up the red metal flag so the carrier would be certain to stop and collect it. Then I strolled back to my house, reflecting on how curiously comforting figuring my taxes always has proved for me.
I just consider myself blessed, I guess. I spent a decade abroad, working in developing countries. I’m grateful that I roamed the world, from Mongolia to Mauritius, protected by my American passport. I’m grateful that when I retired I drove from Washington DC to Washington State on relatively well-maintained highways. I’m grateful I don’t live in a dictatorship. I’m grateful I can continue to support my country, even on income tax collection day.
For poet T. S. Eliot and reluctant taxpayers, April indeed may be the cruelest month. Me, I welcome those April showers. I just keep on looking for a bluebird and listening for his song.