I arrived at the neutral-toned office in midtown Manhattan with my tax documents and the totals of my yearly expenses (I spent how much on health insurance?) to meet with my accountant of four years, Fran. I read my book while I waited for her by the reception area, got a glass of water from the cooler, responded to a text. When Fran appeared, cheerful and welcoming, in the doorway, I followed her back to her desk. Nothing in this scenario was noteworthy—except that when we got to Fran’s office, I closed the door and started to cry.
My tears were not about about a tax-related disaster; I was crying over a crisis in a close relative’s life that was threatening his health, his reputation, his work, and his peace of mind. It was threatening his finances, too, certainly; but those issues were farther down the list of concerns.
Getting to this point, with an accountant who can accept my tears and offer suggestions both practical and emotional, was a long process. Tax Day this year has me thinking about this journey to find my perfect account, my Fran.
Taxes make me nervous under even simple circumstances; I’m constantly positive that I’m doing everything wrong. So when I became a freelancer many years ago, I decided to hire a professional.
Most people who use accountants probably don’t get attached. They can see a different accountant each year; or they can see the same one regularly but barely think of that person beyond tax time. And that’s fine, but that’s not me.
I don’t want to reveal the details of my earning and spending to just anyone. Talking about my health-care expenses means talking about my health; it’s personal. Showing someone exactly what I’m paid for various pieces of work dredges up complex existential questions: Is the value of my work defined by what I’m paid for it? On the flip side, the money I’m able to save relates to my hopes and dreams. I want an accountant who cares about those things along with me.
My first “accounting relationship” was with a woman I’ll call Crystal (name changed to protect the grouchy). I met her when I was new to freelancing and had, not surprisingly, made a self-employment mistake that threatened to be both confusing and costly. A friend recommended Crystal because she knew her way around these issues.
I don’t want to reveal the details of my earning and spending to just anyone.
Her office was a room in her apartment in a beautiful brownstone. As lovely as the block and the building were, though, their tranquility ended where Crystal’s office space began. Papers were everywhere; a TV was on; and Crystal’s small dog would not stop barking.
Crystal preferred her clients to sit in the office while she did their taxes, so she wouldn’t have to call with any questions. And so I sat among the paper piles for a few hours, facing Crystal across her desk, reading a newspaper and observing the posters she had taped to the walls. One of them was a cartoon of Moses on the mountaintop: “God said,” Moses called to an eager crowd, “don’t trust the government!”
Crystal wasn’t much of a “people person.” Each year, I wasn’t sure she’d remember my name. Her moods could shift quickly from neutral and unremarkable to apparently annoyed. All of the questions she asked me had to do with money and numbers, though she did tell me a little about her life (she dreamed of moving to a farm out west and taking in rescued horses).
Crystal did a great job with my taxes, that year and all the years I went to her. But eventually, her unpredictable temperament wore me down. On a Tuesday afternoon during tax season, I called her with a question. “I’m not working today,” she snapped into the phone. “Why would you call me now?” I had not spoken to her in months, but I felt like she was yelling at me as if I were a repeat crank caller.
“Call me tomorrow, after 2,” Crystal concluded before hanging up. I did call her back, and we did complete my taxes one more time; but I knew my period of working with her had come to an end.
I already have jitters when dealing with taxes, so I can’t have an accountant who raises the stress levels.
Next came Ira. He was a large, warm-hearted, bear-like man. He was patient with, even somewhat amused by, my last-minute hunts for tax forms I’d received months ago. He could be gruff, but the gruffness was never off-putting. Honesty and good sense radiated from him; he had no pretense. He was a mensch.
Ira and I liked each other and worked well together. When I got cancer at age 40, he was offended on my behalf, scoffing that I was “far too young for this b.s.”
I’ve lived through that cancer, so far, with no recurrence. Ira, on the other hand, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 65, in 2011. Even though he was my accountant, I still feel shock when I think about him being gone. He deserved more time; he deserved to retire, which he never did, after decades of hard work.
But then came Fran. She worked with Ira; and when the dust settled after his passing, I ended up as her client. She’s a spirited woman with a hearty laugh and a candid disposition. Year by year, we’ve gotten closer as we’ve discussed politics, work, vacations, relationships past and present, and, of course, emotions related to money. I remember she mentioned once how we’ll handle my income when I have book earnings. I don’t yet have a published book or book earnings; but I love that my accountant believes I will.
I don’t know if Fran has noticed, but sometimes, now, I sign my emails to her not with “Best” or “Sincerely” but with “XO.” I definitely did notice when I received an email from her recently with the closing of “Hugs.” Some might be confused by that, coming from their accountant; for me, from Fran, it was just right.
So, Fran, as we reach the end of another hectic tax season: Thank you for your kindness and decency. Thank you for showing enthusiasm about any holiday present I’ve given you, even the ones I feared were boring. Thank you for talking to me about experiences in your life that echo some of my own. Thank you for letting me cry with you, and laugh with you, too.