That thing about death and taxes

Wise Ben Franklin’s remarks don’t really cover the situation where doing the tax return might actually be the thing that kills you.

You don’t need to hear about the troubles with our tax system from me — everyone agrees it’s too complicated, has too many loopholes, requires too many people to administer, is subject to fraud, and on and on. (My two cents? Two words: Flat. Tax.) But all the reasons to rail on the tax system took on a new dimension yesterday when I found myself feeling physically ill about having to open up the tax organizer from my mother’s CPA so that I could work on my mother’s taxes, even though she passed away more than a year and a half ago.

OK, technically, it’s “the estate” taxes I have to work on — estate being a relative term when you consider my parents’ modest income and lifestyle and “holdings” over their life (my mother’s hoarding tendencies notwithstanding). That I still have to stress about the taxes resulting from the death of a 93-year-old woman of humble means — and that I’ll have to do it again next year because of a few measly shares of stock that remain to be sold because the process for selling a deceased person’s decades-old shares of stock is a cluster f**k — is something I can’t believe more people don’t specifically call out as a big problem with the tax system.

Oh, and can I also mention that “settling the estate” also required the services of an attorney (at quite a cost, even though ours kindly gave us a break) as well as a CPA? And that the process and hoop-jumping flummoxed (and continues to flummox) otherwise intelligent, educated professionals (i.e., my sister and me)? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how poor or uneducated people manage all this, and how greatly they must be taken advantage of along the way.

I also wonder what the heck is going to happen when Mike and I pass on with no direct heirs. No doubt we’ll have to appoint someone as executor/executrix (or maybe we did? — we have wills but I honestly don’t remember anything about this). I’m already sorry to burden that person with this baloney, having gone through it myself. It’s appalling that the government profits from someone’s death, after having already profited during that person’s entire life. And it’s appalling that the survivors, above having to deal with the grief of a loved one’s passing, are also burdened with making sure the government gets its cut before the rightful heirs get anything.

But I digress. I swallowed my nausea yesterday and spent a couple hours cobbling together the information for my mom’s accountant as best I can. Once I get a few remaining bank statements, I’ll send the whole mess to her and let her tell me what’s missing. And then — oh boy! — I get to start on Mike’s and my taxes — complicated, as always, by the fact that I’m self-employed, and requiring the services of yet another CPA to figure them all out.

I’m feeling a little sick again. And I notice I’m clenching my jaw. Time to go think happy thoughts…maybe over a glass of happy wine (subject to federal excise tax ranging from $1.07 to $3.40 per gallon, additional complicated state excise tax, and PA state tax averaging 6.4%).

Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems
to promise it will be durable; but, in this world,
nothing is certain 
except death and taxes.
~ Benjamin Franklin
letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 13 November 1789

translated from French


It’s been 10 months since my mum died, and we’re still struggling to clean out the house. We knew she was a saver, and had joked for years about “Heaven help us when the time comes…” But I don’t think any of us truly comprehended the magnitude of the task — I, for one, figured all 7 of us would pitch in for a couple weeks and just get it done.

So naive.

I kid you not when I say my mother saved virtually everything. From her entire 93-year life. The ridiculous as well as the practical, with very little discrimination about what was important or valuable and what was not. From big pieces of furniture to tiny, unidentifiable doohickeys from some long-broken trinket — in her eyes, it was worth saving. A product of the Depression, she simply did not throw things away.

And don’t get me wrong — the house did not look like an episode of Hoarders. She wasn’t living in chaos or squalor. Things were generally “redd up” (basement and attic notwithstanding). But every possible unvisible nook and cranny in a large, three-story house that could be filled with something was filled with something. And for us, her post-middle-age children, it’s like opening a time capsule of not only our long-forgotten pasts, but of her past, long before any of us came to be.

It’s overwhelming. It’s maddening. It’s bittersweet. It’s caused endless laughter as well as a few tears and frustrations that really only the 7 of us can understand or appreciate.

It makes me wish, on any given day, both that I could just turn the keys over to a clean-up company and say, “Here, make it go away,” and that I had a big empty room at home that I could bring a thousand things to to save, share here on the blog, or possibly eBay away at my leisure. The memorabilia alone is fascinating — pamphlets and cookbooks from the war years; ads from a fancy radio or hi-fi my dad had coveted; the sales receipt from their 1949 stove (still in use in the kitchen), heck, the sales receipt from her flowers for their wedding…so much interesting point-in-time, slice-of-life stuff. Her beautiful hats and suits from another era. Knickknacks and doodads galore. The WWII letters between her and my dad before they were married. The hundreds of cards she received over the years, from all of us as well as from long-ago passed relatives and friends. My grandma’s recipes. My great-aunt Sister Augusta’s wonderful notes to each of us on our birthdays. Stuff from her childhood. Stuff from our childhood. Stuff from 30, 20, 10 years ago. Stuff from last year.

So much stuff.

We;re just not not able to save everything, even some things we’d like to save. I struggle with how much time and attachment to have to all these “things” and with how much of my own life to spend attending to the remnants of someone else’s life. If I didn’t know something even existed, do I really need it now? And what about when I’m gone? — I have no children to pass it on to.

And so we persist. Slowly winnowing the mountain into smaller hills of ever-more-agonizing decisions. Always wanting to do the right thing, but not always knowing what the right thing is, and fighting our growing fatigue and waning ability to be as thoughtful and discerning as we started out to be 10 months ago.

And still, with each item picked up, considered, and too often put right back down, with each thing recognized and recalled, and even with things never seen before, there’s a “mumory” attached. And a realization that she’s gone. And there’s so much you wish she could tell you about and laugh with you about. And so much you know she’d never let you throw away. And you miss her. A lot.


To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
~ Thomas Campbell

More than a book — a wonder

Maybe it’s odd for a young girl to read novels of WWII, but it wasn’t for me. I’ve been fascinated with the era since I was a child and pored over a coffee table book we had. It wasn’t about the battles or the politics or the progression of the war, but the human aspect. The men and women who didn’t hesitate to leave their world behind when duty called. The people on the home front who supported them. The fat drives and metal drives and rubber drives. The Victory Gardens. The rationing. The Rosie the Riveters. The leg makeup in lieu of scarce nylons, complete with a seam you drew up your leg yourself. The service stars in nearly every window. The boys in Germany, the Pacific, Italy, Africa. The WACs and WAVES. The sheer magnitude of the effort.

This was the story of my parents, my aunts and uncles, my very own representatives of The Greatest Generation. They lived it, and it amazed me.

I went on to read many novels about the war — Tales of the South Pacific, King Rat, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, Time and Tide, Gone to Soldiers, The Hiding Place, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, The Caine Mutiny. When I heard about Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, I knew I had to read it. Ever the cheapskate, I hemmed and hawed and ended up buying it as a gift for my brother, knowing he would appreciate it and I would get to read it eventually.

It is, quite simply, spectacular.

The subject, Louis Zamperini, is a man that defies adjectives. Amazing? Astounding? Incredible? Inspirational? All of those things.

As my brother aptly put it, “If you didn’t know it was a true story, you’d never believe it.”

Frankly I can’t believe I’d never heard of this man or his story before. I won’t recount it here — other reviews have done it well. And Laura Hillenbrand? Just so gifted. I am humbled by her skill. I can’t wait to read Seabiscuit now.

Be warned, it’s not an easy read — so brutal at times I wondered if I could finish. (Thank God the name of the book is what it is.) I actually put it aside for a couple months, mostly because life and the events of this summer overwhelmed me. But I was glad to pick it up again when I was ready. It’s a book that deserves to be read. A story that deserves to be known.

I hope you’ll read it, and marvel. (And if you already have, did it astound you, too?)

If you’re going through hell, keep going.
~ Winston Churchill

« Older entries