Just off the kitchen of our big old house, inside the door to the basement stairs, was a simple box Pop had made from scrap wood. It hung on two nails.
The Tax Box.
The Tax Box was deeper than it was wide. It stood out about 5 inches from the wall next to the light switch. It was open at the top.
Whenever anyone in the family bought anything — anything — the first thing you would do was go to the basement stairs and shove the receipt into the Tax Box.
If Mom sent me to Hug’s AG on Broadway for a loaf of bread, I would open the door, stand on my tiptoes and jump to stuff the receipt for 20 cents — 19 cents plus tax — into the box. Sometimes, it would take two or three jumps to score the dunk.
If Pop gassed up the Fairlane, the receipt went into the Tax Box.
When new underwear arrived from Sears catalog, the bill went into the Tax Box.
Ten-penny nails from Kuhnen’s Hardware? Tax Box.
It was a good system.
Early in the year, everything went in easily. By December, I had to scrunch all the receipts down to get another one in. Tough to do on one jump.
Just after Pop finished his pickled herring on New Year’s Day, he would take down the Tax Box, shake all the little slips of paper out on the kitchen table and squash them into a couple of shoeboxes marked KUHL RECEIPTS.
With a stroke of the pencil, he would change the 7 in 1957 to make a lopsided 8 for 1958. The shoeboxes would go into the closet with all the other shoeboxes filled with papers marked TAXES 1958. Little hands weren’t allowed anywhere near the shoeboxes.
Then one night, Pop would spread all the shoeboxes on the dining room table and go through the receipts. Paper by paper. The slip for the 19-cent bread got just as much attention as the one for a delivery of coal for the furnace.
For a few days, we weren’t allowed near the table or even in the same room with the tax stuff. Pop was out of bounds unless he called for a cup of coffee or to get a pencil sharpened. Then we hopped to it.
We treated tax days like the election of a pope. Like the world waiting for white smoke, we kept a vigil for the big smile on Pop’s stubbly face when he came out to tell Mom the good news.
It was always good news, thanks to Pop’s eight little deductions. You could bet that our next Sunday meal would be beef roast with those browned potatoes and carrots. And the receipt for the roast and potatoes would go in the Tax Box at the top of the stairs.
That wasn’t the end of it.
When I got my first job, Pop gave me a piece of advice. Save all your tax forms, receipts and check stubs for at least five years, son. You could get audited.
Pop’s great fear in life was being audited by the IRS. I don't know why, because he was honest to a fault. Compared to Pop, Abraham Lincoln was a pirate. With eight kids, Pop never had much money to worry about anyway. Most of Pop’s assets were in his overalls pockets.
But the IRS didn't know that, he figured.
What if the taxman came a-knockin’ and said, “Mr. Kuhl, it says here you bought a pound of 10-penny finishing nails four years ago for $1.39. We at the IRS find that hard to believe.”
No problem. Within five minutes, Pop could produce the receipt from Kuhnen’s Hardware. And he could take the taxman down the basement to show him exactly what those nails were holding together. By the time Pop was finished with him, the IRS guy would want to give some money back to us.
I learned my tax lessons well.
On the counter in our kitchen sits a little round basket where all the receipts go. It’s only big enough to hold a month’s worth. Every month or so, we empty it into a shoebox in the hall closet. By the end of the year, we need two shoeboxes.
All other important papers go in the middle right-hand drawer in the desk. When that drawer fills up, I dump all the papers into a shoebox, write TAXES 2014 on them and stack them in the corner until the W2s come.
I wait as long as I can. Then one day in March, I spread all the shoebox stuff on the dining room table and sort it into piles.
My family knows to keep their distance when Dad has the shoeboxes on the table. But that's where the tradition ends.
After sorting, I load up the shoeboxes and take them into the Tax Man. My wife and I wait patiently for the white smoke.
With any luck, we'll be having beef roast and browned potatoes and carrots for dinner on Wednesday.