Claiming Grandma, 2017 Judge’s Choice

By Margaret Koger

I found the Federal offices angled off Fort Street and tucked in near the Veterans Hospital. My eyes were wide as I clutched my baby’s yellow plastic carrier close to my chest. A sign in the lobby read “No Firearms above the 1st Floor.” Our town policeman back home in Wilder had the only gun for shooting people that I knew of in our end of Canyon County! I tucked the letter from the Internal Revenue Service in beside the baby’s blanket.

My husband Harvey and I needed all forty hours of his weekly pay for bills, so he’d gone to work as usual. We’d received the letter telling us when and where to show up to explain why we thought we could claim 50% of Grandma on our 1961 tax return. We feared we’d have to return the refund or go to jail, and we needed the money to pay off the hospital. So I was there on my own.

Thinking about Grandma was hard enough without worrying about the money. I felt such a loss, missing an old woman who’d starved herself to death in a nursing home because she felt like she was back on the rez—or in jail. She’d been so proud of being half-Cherokee, and I didn’t know then how many mixed-bloods stayed with the tribes during the land grabs. No wonder those sky-blue eyes of hers veiled the past from us. Sometimes I’d even forget she’d passed, since her house was still sitting out there by Lake Lowell full of her quilts and shoes.

In the waiting room I settled into a low, vinyl-cushioned chair and checked on the baby, hoping she wouldn’t wake up in the middle of whatever was about to happen. After a few minutes a red-headed man stepped out of his office and called, “Mrs. Warren?” I nodded my head and tried to smile. “Come in.” He pointed me to one of the chairs in front of his desk and I sat down. I put the diaper bag on the other visitor’s chair and the baby carrier on the floor for safety. Again, I wished I weren’t there alone. I was nineteen, a high school graduate and a mother, but the tax man looked right through me and I felt the size of an ant.

I opened the diaper bag and pulled out the copies of our income, expenses and exemptions, since I’d assumed he would be checking our honesty. I held the papers out to him, but the IRS just waved them off so I put them back away.

“You’ve claimed this exemption for Lavinia Warren, she’s your grandmother?”

“My husband’s.”

“And she wrote this note saying she’d received most of her income from her sons and your husband. You’ll need to explain.”

“Yes, well she’d been trying to live on her seventy-two dollar a month widow’s pension and the money from my husband Harvey increased her income; we weren’t married then, and he needed a place to stay. He gave her fifty dollars every two weeks. You notice we only claimed half of her because his uncles helped with food and what clothing she needed—she hated new clothes!”

“But according to our records of your husband’s address, he was living in her house that year.”

“Yes, but he chose to stay there to help her out.”

“If he lived in her house, she was helping him.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

“The law says that if you live in a person’s house you can’t claim the money you give them as a contribution to their income because they own the property. It’s called rent.”

“Oh. But he just chose to stay with her because she’d let him live there while he was in high school. That was before he graduated, and went to Nevada to work in a wallboard plant, and after I visited my sister there where I met him, and then he moved back to Idaho and got a job making $400 a month. So as a widow, Grandma —”

“I understand, but if she owned the house, the money he gave her would’ve been rent.”

“I, um, I don’t think anyone would pay rent to live with Lavinia.”

“Maybe she isn’t the best to be around, but it was her house.”

“She’s different … that’s for sure. She has, uh had a good heart and she loves Harvey to death even if she’s up there looking down on us here.” The IRS man frowned and I wasn’t sure he understood what I meant about Lavinia being with the Lord now, so I pointed up at the ceiling. The IRS looked up impatiently and all we both saw was a textured ceiling.

“Singing with the saints, I suppose?” he asked, nodding and arching his eyebrows.

“Actually she didn’t sing much, so she’s probably reciting her favorite poems.”

Now the IRS glared straight at me, so I went on even though tears started to fill my eyes and my voice got shaky. “Sorry. It’s just that her house wouldn’t be anything you’d pay rent for these days. My husband, remember, we weren’t married then, he felt sorry for her. Her sons live right there on the land she deeded to them, and they gave her garden stuff and game from hunting, but the railroad doesn’t pay much.”

The IRS shuffled the papers on his desk and looked up. “Did she cook for your husband? Did they eat meals together? Who bought the groceries?”

I could tell he was getting impatient, and I was afraid the baby would wake up soon and need a diaper change, so I hurried on. “Mostly, no, he’d buy finger-steaks for dinner after he picked me up for dates. And he worked, uh, works, in a bakery that gives out day-olds to the help. Anyway, Lavinia didn’t exactly eat meals.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my mother insists on meat, starch and vegetables for every dinner. Grandma, she’d boil meat from the freezer—I’m not sure her teeth were good. Other times she’d simmer a potato or a handful of carrots that’d been stored in buckets of sand on the porch. My mother would have a fit if I cooked that way.”

“Please, about the grandmother!”

“So she ate whatever was cooked whenever she felt hungry or if nothing was ready, she ate big bowls of ice cream.”

“Ice cream?”

“Yessir. She always had a five-gallon tub of Neapolitan—strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. I’ve never seen anyone serve such big bowls of ice cream. Naturally you don’t miss having a meal after eating one.”

“Let me get this straight. Grandma served ice cream in lieu of meals?”

“It’s not like none of us cared. She just wasn’t very interested in advice from anyone. And she really missed the ice cream in the nursing home. After we got married, the family moved her to a nursing home and …”

“Please, Mrs. Warren, the only year that matters for your tax return is the one where your husband lived in her house. Tell me a little more about the deeded property. What year was that?”

Now I’ve done it, I thought. I had no idea when or how the taxes were set up on the deeds. I took a deep breath and just let the chips fall. “Oh, Uncle John’s, Uncle Dave’s and my father-in-law Harvey Senior’s all live on land she and Grandpa homesteaded. Did you know people could claim land through the Reclamation Bureau clear into the 1940s?

“Her sons grew up in the old house where she lived, until the nursing home. I don’t know where the three boys slept because there isn’t much room inside. Grandpa worked as a trapper so he wasn’t home all that much—I didn’t know you could make a living trapping in the 1940s and ’50s, did you? There are still traps hanging on the porch. You can hardly walk through that porch, it’s kind of like threading a needle.”

The IRS man held his hand up with the palm forward as if to stop me from speaking. “Okay, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I have to decide whether or not the money your husband gave her counted as rent. Setting the land and food issues aside, weren’t your husband’s contributions to your—his grandmother really rent?”

“Well I guess the land and the food were the most important things to her! So I suppose some people would think it was rent, but, like I said, he was trying to help out.”

“When people take in renters, even a boarder who will eat ice cream for a meal, they usually do it because they need money. That’s how it works!”

“Well, when he came back from Nevada and he had a good job …”

Now the man started tapping his pencil on the desk and I was just sure he’d wake up the baby. He stared at the waterfall picture on the wall for a couple of minutes and then said, “I think we covered you husband’s employment. And how and where the family live, and what they live on and … I … let’s try something else. Describe the house.”

“Her house?”

“Yesss, her house.”

“Well, it’s kind of hard to describe.” I was thinking of most houses where you have the living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and a bathroom—Grandma’s place wasn’t really like that.

“Just start with one room.”

“Okay, let’s see. There’s her bedroom in front. Her bed is in the middle and it fills up the room so you can just barely walk around the bed on account of her shoes.”

“Shoes?”

“Yes, she saved all her shoes since she walked from Oklahoma to Idaho. She and Granddad. She was half Cherokee, you know, she had blue eyes and a little pointy nose.”

“They walked from Oklahoma?”

“I guess they didn’t have money for the train. She was very proud of being half Cherokee. Anyway, the walk, you know, it made her funny about shoes. She kept them all, from then on. There are boxes and boxes of shoes. They line three of the walls. And it’s kind of embarrassing to talk about, but she keeps a Folgers coffee can under the bed because—“   

It looked like the IRS’s face had gotten about as red as healthy beet when he started more or less stabbing his pencil into the pile of papers on his desk, and interrupted me. “Please, just describe the rest of the house.”

“Well, the main room, or what should be the main room with the stove is taken up with her quilt table.”

“Her what?”

“Her quilt table, sir—she made quilts. Also she saved newspapers. There are stacks of newspapers about my height on three walls. My husband slept on a cot beside the quilt table so he could tend the fire. The whole family burns wood in their stoves—no furnaces or anything like that. The men all cut wood on the weekends after they finish their shifts on the railroad. My husband helps them some weekends when he’s not hunting.”

“Isn’t anyone afraid of a fire?”

“Oh yes sir, we all are! Absolutely. Everyone worried about a fire before she went to the nursing home. It’s just that Grandma, she wouldn’t—“

“You were describing the house.”

“Well, there is something about quilts I don’t understand, sir. There is a big thing hanging over the quilt table—”

“Never mind about that. The rest of the house, please.”

“Well, next there is the kitchen. It’s a closed in lean to, built on the side of the original two rooms. She has both a trash burner and a two-burner electric stove. The refrigerator and the freezer sit out on the porch with the wringer washer. The porch is a kind of walkway into the house. It’s not heated or anything, so it’s not really a room, just a place where you can hang your coat and take your boots off if you can find room for them.”

“What does the rest of the house consist of?”

“Um, well, that’s all there is.”

“Sorry?”

“That’s the whole thing. There’s an outhouse of course, but that’s not really part of the house itself is it? That’s why she has the coffee can under her bed, because she’s too old to—”

“You mean your husband was making $400 a month and he stayed with his grandmother in a house where he had no bedroom and no bathroom? Where did he—”

“Oh, he showered at Uncle John’s. He just slept in Grandma’s quilting room. It was fine.”

“And he gave his grandmother a hundred dollars a month?”

“I did say it was to help her.”

When the man stood up, I knew the interview was over, but I had no idea what the results would be.

Thankfully, my little girl had stayed asleep, and now when she opened her eyes, they were so blue, not just baby blue, I thought of showing the IRS what beautiful Cherokee eyes could look like even in a baby that was mostly Irish, Scottish, German, and English, but I didn’t think he’d care much. I waited for him to tell me what he decided, because the refund had been almost two hundred dollars, and like I think I said, it would pay off the hospital bill.

“I’ll keep your explanation in mind,” he said, scratching at his chin. “The house you described isn’t what I expected so … Anyway, you’re free to go.”

As I stood up, he looked at me for the longest time, then at my baby girl. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but finally he just kind of shook his head, opened the office door, and stood aside as I walked out. So we didn’t dare spend any of the refund money. We had to make several monthly payments on the hospital bill on our own before we received a letter stating that claiming Grandma on our 1961 tax return had been approved. Since we’d figured out how to afford paying off the hospital a little at a time, we left the IRS money in the bank. We were hoping there’d soon be a little brother to play with our daughter. I’d always liked being a big sister!

Even to this day, a part of me still misses Lavinia, with her feathery voice arching falsetto while she’d go on and on reciting the rhymes she loved. We’d be shooting Dan McGrew and cremating Sam McGee again and again if she were still alive. But she was done. All those shoes she’d saved in boxes lining her bedroom wall couldn’t help her walk away from the null and void she’d become. I wonder what poems I’ll be able to remember when I’m an old lady with nothing better to do than enjoy the last of my living breath.