I coached one of my kids this year — age 20-something — as she valiantly struggled to make sense of tax forms for the first time. Through vicarious exposure to her frustration, I found myself suffering something like post traumatic stress disorder. I like to consider myself an intelligent and reasonable person, but for years there was something about tax preparation that turned me into a quivering zombie — eyes glazed over, sweaty palms, knots in the stomach. My recovery was made possible by wonderful professional-turned-friend Cheryl Grant, who brightened my perspective on taxation.
I have a history of tax trauma, some of which is my own fault, but not all. My combination of distraction, disorganization and procrastination do not jibe well with “well-kept records” or “meticulous bookkeeping.” After suffering misery and mistakes for a few years filing on my own, I caved in and headed to H&R Block. One year I dutifully dumped my paperwork at their office in March, then forgot about it until the following September — I plead partial insanity due to infant twins and a 2-year-old.
Then there was a guy someone recommended — “My neighbor is great! He does taxes.” Supposedly, this guy would save us lots of money.
I confess that Jonathan and I were not strangers to the after-hours line at the post office on April 15. In Worcester, Mass., the postal service even offered coffee and donuts to us last-minute filers. But our new disaster of a tax preparer made us look like veteran professionals. He showed up at our house at 11 p.m. on the 15th, spilling reams of error-laden paperwork. We scrambled, made do, then spent the next three years making up for his botched job.
At our new home in Maine, it was with some trepidation that we made our search for a new champion to help us through tax time. Fortunately, an astute neighbor told us about Cheryl Grant.
Cheryl is a 30-year veteran of tax preparation. Happily for her (but to my dismay), she is moving away from full-time work after this year. With her characteristic demeanor of generosity and calm, she took some time to chat with me about her history in a demanding profession, despite the fact that she is in her busiest time of year. As usual, I left our meeting stress-free. I also left with a new appreciation both for Cheryl’s motivations and for the occupation that she deeply believes in.
Cheryl admits that her profession has its downside. People associate April with tax anxiety, but for preparers the pressure is year-round. The 15th of every month has a tax deadline, so the tension is perpetual.
“You learn to manage the stress, but I didn’t always succeed. There are a lot of professions out there that are not good for you physically and mentally, and this is one of them.”
One of the reasons Cheryl is downsizing the workload is because of health problems that may well have been exacerbated by the stress of her occupation. Nevertheless, she has always found the work interesting and rewarding, especially at the beginning.
“When I was young I wanted to change the world. I believed in the government, and it felt important to me to make sure that the government got the funds it needed to do the work that needed to be done.”
The sincerity of her beliefs was palpable as she went on to talk about how many people are oblivious to what the government does for them.
“How many people walk into a market and think, ‘I wonder if this food is safe?’ The produce and meat we eat, the pharmaceuticals we buy — we trust it implicitly because we have the FDA inspecting it. And that’s just one small part of it. Everyone uses government services every day, and we don’t even realize it.”
There are maintained roadways, transportation systems, security forces, environmental protections and more. It was a good reminder. This year, as she prepares her last full docket of other people’s paperwork, I thank Cheryl not only for saving me from stress palpitations, I also thank her for the wake-up call. One could approach tax payments with gratitude rather than grief.
We are actually getting a pretty sweet deal.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.