Column: A Debt, and Gratitude at the Way She Handled It

  • Workers enter the IRS building on Dec. 11, 2014, in Washington, D.C. The IRS has been making a full-court press this summer to alert tax professionals that cyber crooks are out to steal taxpayer information from their digital files. (Molly Riley/McClatchy DC/TNS)

For the Valley News
Tuesday, March 13, 2018


I go to Mother’s nursing home almost every morning for a visit: fill her humidifier, share any news of mutual interest, and read a chapter of whatever book we’re into at the moment. She always asks about any mail or e-mails, and what’s going on around the house. This morning she asked, “Have you got the taxes done yet?”

Pulling together the previous year’s information has forever been a challenge for us. Most years we haven’t gotten the stuff to the accountant quite in time for him to make the deadline, and we’ve had to file for an extension. Now, however, both our businesses are but memories and the transactions of everyday life have been reduced to a minimum; I was able to get everything to him two days after the last of the required forms arrived from banks, employers, and investment people.

You can’t imagine the pleasure I took in informing her that not only were our records in, but the returns were back, ready for signing and mailing.

It was clearly a load off her mind. Smiling, she asked, “Remember the year I dealt with the IRS?” Remember? I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Mother’s had some shining moments in the almost 60 years I’ve known her, but that was probably her finest.

It was 32 years ago now. I’d just spent the previous five years slowly going broke. I could see it coming; the pumps just couldn’t keep up with the leaks. The pain of failing was much less than the pain of admitting failure. But finally it was time to face up to the bank, my suppliers, and the dreaded IRS.

I was at work when the agent showed up at the house. It was a cold day. Mother was at home when he knocked. He showed identification and announced he’d come to discuss an imminent auction of our property to discharge our debt. “Excuse me?” she said, utterly unfazed. “I hope you have a Plan B.”

“Can we talk inside?” he asked. No, she answered; she didn’t want him looking at her stuff. So they talked in the breezeway (there’s a reason they’re called that), and he left, promising to return. I discovered next morning that he’d levied and cleaned out our sparse bank accounts — even our younger daughter’s, which had about 12 bucks in it.

And so it began. I’d borrowed against the house during the Carter years, when interest was at a record high; so we owed the bank about $75,000 in interest by the time I sold it. The IRS put a lien for $18,000 on all my contracting equipment. An accountant friend told me to offer $3,000 to lift it. I thought him crazy, but did, and they said all right. Another dear friend redeemed it all for $3,000 and sold it back to me for $100 a month, retaining title, just in case, till it was paid off.

Every time I talked to the agent, I was reduced afterward to quivering, sleep-robbing fear. He had a gift for describing the nasty results of owing the government money. I plucked up my courage one day and asked, “Do you guys take a sort of reverse Dale Carnegie course or something?” Yes, he said, they did. They weren’t interested in winning friends, just in influencing people.

This is where Mother came in. She couldn’t be scared or intimidated, but she did take it seriously. She worked out with the agent how much per week we’d pay toward our debt; she’d make sure it was in the mail when she’d promised it would be; and she’d call him to let him know it was on its way. She took all that off my mind and shoulders. All I had to do was keep at my job and maintain a cash flow.

Over the next few months we developed a personal relationship with the agent. He was a really nice guy, and from his store of experience offered me valuable advice. He made a date for breakfast one day at Lou’s in downtown Hanover and, as we were getting ready to leave, let it drop that he was getting pressure to speed things up, and would be heading to the bank after breakfast to execute more levies. Then he gave me enough time to get there first, which I did.

Eventually it all worked out. We lost our house, but I built another in a beautiful patch of woods I managed to get for a relative song. We lived in a tiny shack on the land — electricity and outdoor phone, but no water or plumbing — while the new house went up beside it. I was able to keep all my equipment and begin rebuilding.

Meanwhile, Mother had so impressed the agent with her let’s-get-this-done attitude that he began dropping in for coffee. When he and his family vacationed nearby in the summer, they all visited us. We’d rebuilt our lives in the meantime.

I’ve never gotten over being thankful that Mother-to-be walked past my construction job one fateful day in 1959. Makes me smile just to think of it.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.