The Tax Man Runneth
How my grandmother won a skirmish with the IRS.
By Earl Smith
The tax season has put me in mind of my late grandmother, a feisty Maine Yankee who clung to the quaint notion that government belonged to her and had a most practical view of how to deal with its pesky regulations.
Her independence on such matters became sharply evident to me one day in the mid-1970s when I got a call from a man who asked, flat out, if I was related to Vina Crockett. Of course he already knew, or he wouldn’t be trolling among the Smiths to ask about a Crockett, and so I fessed up right away. “That would be my grandmother,” I said. “She lives in Oakland.”
The man explained he was a Portland agent of the Internal Revenue Service. “She hasn’t filed an income tax return since 1960,” he said gravely. “We keep sending notices; she doesn’t answer.”
“Oh my,” I said, pretending to be surprised as my mind raced. “She can’t owe much,” I offered meekly. “Lives on Social Security and a small pension from the toothpick mill.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said firmly. “Everybody has to file.”
I said I was going to pick up groceries for her that very day and would inquire about the missing forms.
“Please do,” he said, “and call me back.” He gave me his number.
That noon, on the short ride from Waterville to Oakland, I wondered exactly who was in trouble, my grandmother or the government. Not quite five feet tall, Nana was a giant in the measure of strong wills and stubbornness and, having spent most of her near ninety years battling uphill, she was also remarkably practical.
Examples were unending. When she finally gave in to my pleading to lock the door whenever she left the farmhouse, she insisted on leaving the skeleton key in the keyhole. So she could find it, she explained. One day when she fell in the kitchen and couldn’t get up, she removed her apron and dusted rungs of the chairs while she waited for someone to come and rescue her. Oh no, I assured myself, they won’t put Nana in jail. If they do, she’ll be running the place in a week. The G-Man has met his match.
Grocery shopping was quick. I knew the layout at the Red & White in Oakland, and worked from a scribbled list Nana gave me the week before, handing it over with an envelope of dollar bills and small change and her usual warning not to waste. Food prices dismayed her. Soup was ten cents a can, and bread and milk, twice that.
Canned crabmeat, a favorite, was out of the question. I carried a grease pencil, and back in the car I marked items down to match her budget, including two cans of crabmeat, slashed half price.
I plopped the grocery bags on the kitchen table, and Nana beamed when I presented the crabmeat. She made us sandwiches, poured me a glass of milk, and herself a cup of tea. I waited until she took her first bite before broaching the subject of taxes. “An IRS man called this morning,” I ventured cautiously. “Says you haven’t filed a tax return since 1960.”
“The year your grandfather died.” Her look said I should have known it. “Nobody can figure out those forms, anyhow. I just throw ’em out.”
I waited. Munched my sandwich. “Well,” I said, “I have to call him back. What will I tell him?”
Her hazel eyes glared through steel-rimmed glasses, and she wagged a bony finger. “You tell that young man I’ve paid enough, already.”
I wiped my face with a napkin. “That’s it?”
That afternoon, after several aborted starts at dialing, I returned the call. “It’s me. Vina Crockett’s grandson.”
“Great,” the man said. “What’d she say?”
“Said she’s paid enough, already.”
The only sound was blood pounding in my ears.
“Say again,” he blurted.
“Says she’s paid enough.”
A longer pause, then I heard what I hoped was a chuckle. “Well now,” he said finally, “I’m a Maine boy, too.
Had a grandmother just like that.” I resumed breathing. “Tell you one thing,” he said, “I’m damned if I’m going to haul an old woman into court just to hear her say she’s already paid enough.” Then he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. “If you won’t tell anybody we had this call, I won’t either.”
Nana lived a few more years, but never heard from the IRS again.