THE BLOG

What I've Learned From My 90-Year-Old Accountant

04/07/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2014

My father prided himself on teaching me and my siblings to do our own taxes. Each spring, we prepared a simple tax return to report any earnings on the modest college funds established with a combination of diligence and thrift over the years. To my father, doing your own taxes reflected self-sufficiency and financial independence.

Every year in early March, I accompanied him to the public library in Fairhope, Alabama to pick up the W-2 E-Z forms, which sat in a stack at the end of the reference desk. After dinner, he placed the forms, pencils, and scrap paper on the kitchen table, with a calculator close at hand. Next to each child's seat at the table, he also provided a copy of last year's tax return as a template.

As a fifteen-year old, I sat at that kitchen table with my three younger siblings whose ages at that time ranged from thirteen to six years old. Our taxes were straightforward with little income to report, but I still felt relief when I completed the form, anticipating an entire year before the task faced me again.

As an adult, I continued to prepare my own taxes, which remained uncomplicated due to my status as a graduate student, Peace Corps volunteer, and finally teacher. The advent of Turbo Tax made tax preparation more palatable, but I never could recreate my father's enjoyment of this season of reporting income and charitable donations.

One year, after two deaths in the family and the demise of my marriage, my best friend mentioned that she was going to see her accountant, a retiree named Windsor Bailey. "You have someone do your taxes?" I asked, incredulous at this prospect. "Oh yes!" she said. "Mr. Bailey is an old friend of my dad's, and he's been doing my taxes for years."

With trepidation, I asked about the cost and was surprised to discover that he charged everyone the same flat rate of $120. So I called Mr. Bailey and scheduled a time to drop off my tax documents. For the first time in my life, I had my own accountant, which seemed like a luxury and a relief.

The next day, I drove past the Home Depot and Oakley Elementary School to his simple brick ranch home in a working class neighborhood in our town of Asheville, NC. To get to his "office," I had to park my car in a steep driveway that led to the basement where he filed taxes for a small network of friends and family members.

I knocked on the sliding glass door and waited with my manila folder in hand. "Come on in!" Mr. Bailey cried with a slow North Carolina drawl. "Now you're a friend of Lyn's, isn't that right? When is Lyn coming to see me? She's always running a little late, but that's alright."

At the time, Mr. Bailey was in his late 70s, a spry senior. His basement housed at least thirty pictures of children and grandchildren, along with an ensemble of knick-knacks, from a ceramic sculpture of a beagle to trophies won by children who now had their own children.

After handing Mr. Bailey my manila folder, I sat in a leather chair, and we visited for a few minutes, sharing tidbits about our lives. "Well, that'll be it for now Mallory," he announced. "I'll call you when I'm done."

And he did. About three weeks later, the phone rang, and he reported that my tax return was ready. The next day, I returned to his house, wrote a check for $120 and never looked back.

Every tax season, I know that I should do my own taxes. But it seems so much easier to call Mr. Bailey. My children describe him as "that old man who does your taxes," although they don't actually know what that means, since they've never done their own taxes (and they have no savings at all).

Each year, I ask Mr. Bailey if he plans to do taxes again. He shuffles a bit before he answers and than says, "Mallory, if the good Lord lets me, I'll keep doing taxes." Then he pauses, as if sharing a secret: "You know it keeps me young, Mallory, it keeps me young."

This year, Mr. Bailey turns 90 years old. When I approach the sliding glass door this spring, he slowly moves from his chair to the basement door, shuffling with caution and intention. His eyes flutter, as if his eyelids have become butterfly wings, about to alight. His easy smile reveals brown and black spots on his teeth, the wear of decades of living.

His wife is bedridden, and they have live-in care, including a daughter-in-law who spends the nights with them. One of his sons comes each year to help during tax season. And Mr. Bailey keeps doing taxes, year after year.

"You know Mallory, we've been blessed. And I'll keep doing taxes as long as I can," he says.

As I sit in that leather chair in his basement this spring, I realize that I'll return to Mr. Bailey next year, if it's an option, even though Money magazine would never recommend hiring a 90-year old man to prepare your taxes. Sometimes in the back of my mind, I wonder if I might be doing something wrong by continuing this arrangement. I mean, I could just visit Mr. Bailey and even take him a casserole, rather than paying him such a small sum to prepare my tax return.

But decisions don't have to make logical sense to be right. Mr. Bailey's accounting is accurate, and my professional relationship with him provides comfort and dignity to us both. And he doesn't need my company beyond our short visit: he has a deadline to keep.

In this tax season marked by anxiety, my encounter with him forces me to pause. When I close that sliding glass door, I stop in wonder at his self-sufficiency and gratitude for the pieces of his life that remain intact.

Outside, the rosebud trees in his yard are in bloom, just as I remembered from last year.

Next spring, I will call Mr. Bailey -- although now I have to yell so he can hear me on the phone. And I wonder if he'll tell me that he's still doing taxes -- as long as the good Lord lets him, as long as it keeps him young.