My father’s mother, Minnie, was a businesswoman, with a good head for figures. This was before Quicken and Turbo Tax, when human beings were solid bookkeepers and Certified Public Accountants dominated the tax minefield. Armed with a freshly sharpened red and blue combination pencil, my grandmother could reconcile a checkbook to the penny and balance a double-sided ledger with ease. During spirited games of canasta, Minnie served as scorekeeper. Tallying numbers in her head, she then entered them on a floral multi-columned score pad. In between hands, the card party ladies nibbled on pastel Jordan Almonds and Planters Deluxe Mixed Nuts.
I was not to inherit my grandmother’s head for figures nor her talent with knitting needles, but I do have a fondness for an occasional Jordan Almond and a good mixed nut. It seemed to me that anyone capable of deciphering the intricacies of a Vogue knitting book had to love numbers. Math was never my strong suit; fractions and reciprocals were painful, algebra and geometry, torturous. My rule was to avoid the slide rule at any cost, and take a pass on the protractor. One afternoon, over a black and white soda at the Pick Wick Luncheonette, my grandmother reached for the check and tried to explain how one figures out a gratuity. When she mentioned the words ‘decimal point,’ my eyes glazed over.
My father shared his mother’s gift for numbers. Each year in late March/early April, tax season arrived in tandem with crocuses and daffodils. From a leather-backed swivel chair at his desk, my father would comb through an accordion file’s worth of receipts, gathering together stacks of pertinent papers. He would place them in an 8½” x 11” brown manila envelope, close it, secure the metal clasp, and label it “Taxes.” The envelope was starkly mysterious, sparking comments about deductions and expenses, federal and state withholdings, and what appeared to be the golden ticket of taxes, a refund. From my vantage point, the entire process was a bewilderment of little slips of paper, triplicate forms printed in teeny, tiny, typeface, and runaway rolls of white paper spilling out of a noisy machine. As my father added and subtracted, the incessant sputtering from the adding machine traveled through the ceiling of his office to my bedroom, interrupting the music playing on my Magnavox record player.
My father’s role was important when it came to the details of tax preparation, but there was another integral player in the mix. In my mind, it seemed that our family's financial infrastructure and stability was tethered to “The Man On the Island.” The man was my father’s accountant, and the island was Long Island, where you would find Bob Slott, Certified Public Accountant, crunching numbers in his office.
On a morning several weeks prior to April 15th, my father would take one last sip from a steaming cup of Chock full o’ Nuts coffee and pick up a briefcase weighty with tax paraphernalia. He and my mother would talk about the BQE and the Belt Parkway, words that sounded more like a secret code and less like a traffic report. Watching my father drive away felt a little bit like waving goodbye to someone setting sail on the Titanic.
The magnitude of tax preparation would not hit me over the head until many years later. When faced with keeping track of my own travel expenses, I learned to appreciate both my grandmother's and my father's bookkeeping skills. Roaming up and down the east coast, off to the mid-west, across the country to the Pacific Northwest and further still to Canada, was a process requiring strict receipt keeping and note taking. My hope was to spend wisely, so both per diem and salary would yield mad savings.
What ultimately saved my math challenged life was neither a red and blue combination pencil nor a handheld calculator. It was the spiral bound, pocket sized, black faux leather Expense & Tax Record Jr. Year after year, from Sunday through Saturday, I recorded all of my expenses, keeping copious notes of where and when and how much I was spending. Brown manila envelopes were jam-packed with airline, taxi, and restaurant receipts, shoeboxes were filled with pay stubs and bank statements. Squirreling away the comings and goings of my finances became the norm, without benefit of an Excel spreadsheet.
In the end, fractions and geometry caught up with me. My everyday life now revolves around circles, weights, and measures. Yes, tax season is better left to the experts, (thank you, Mr. Sweet as Pie) but I’d like to see a Certified Public Accountant do what I do. Just try divvying up a 9” circle into seven even triangular slices. Then go ahead- ease the first piece out of the pie plate and onto a dessert plate, intact. To my knowledge, there’s no computer software for that.