I rolled into a parking spot in front of my accountant’s office and put my 12-year-old minivan (yes, I’m that glamorous) in park and stepped out into the cold. Dang. That January wind was harsh. The door chime greeted me as I stepped over the threshold.
I could see that Kelly was on the phone so I took a seat in the lobby to wait. Snack size candy bars and coffee were leering at me as I glanced to my right, so I quickly looked away. I’d given up processed sugar as part of my 2019 New Year goals, so I had no plans of getting sucked in by their taunting silence. As I looked to my left, my eye caught the kitschy rooster hanging on the wall. It was like something out of an old farmhouse.
It wasn’t long before Kelly was off the phone. I walked into her office and my greeting was met with a warm smile and hearty laugh. Kelly always seemed glad to see a person. Any person.
I sat down and began my usual disclosures like our conversation is recorded for accuracy’s sake and remember this will be online so don’t say anything you don’t want your mom to read.
“Well, she has dementia, so...” Kelly said quickly.
“Oh! I didn't know that,” I exclaimed.
“I don't think she knows my name.”
“That’s so tough,” I said sympathetically. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s.
“Yeah, it is. It's a tough disease,” Kelly said. “But, fortunately she is still at home and doing good. We’re lucky to still have mom with us and she’s fairly pleasant to be around. She knows I'm part of the family, but, you know, when she was here for their taxes she was looking at my pen and she goes, ‘So, you were a Brenno?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I was.’” She paused. “So, you take the good with the bad.”
“When those types of things happen, do you meet them with laughter, or sadness, or tears or a mix of all of things?” I asked.
“Yeah, it hurts a little, but its still mom. But, it’s not the mom that was 10 years ago.”
“Well, gosh, we hit this interview running.” I said and we both laughed. Normally I don’t get to the tough stuff until later in an interview.
“Does she remember your dad?” I asked hopefully.
“Yeah. She always remembers him and wants to be around him. The funny thing is she had six daughters and she also says, ‘I never had any girls. I had three boys.’”
“Is your dad able to care for her?”
“Well, she is still able to care for herself for the most part and they go up to the other farm and count cattle and go to lunch. As long as she's with him, she's okay. She gets real irritated and anxious if he's not around. Even if he’s out on the tractor it still makes her nervous when he’s not in the house.”
“What's he doing on the tractor?” I asked with surprise. I was also a little impressed given he’s in his mid 80’s.
“Probably hauling loads or, well, he’s still farming,” she said as if I shouldn’t be surprised.
“What kind of farming is he doing?”
“He's got about 50 head of beef cattle and then he's got corn and beans and he drove loads. He didn’t do as much this year because of mom, but he just stopped planting three years ago. But, that's what gets them up everyday.”
“What was the farm like growing up?” I love asking this question. It lets me imagine myself as a kid on our old dairy (and later hobby) farm.
“Oh gosh,” she exhaled. She looked up and its almost as if a scroll of memories was moving in front of her eyes.
“What’s the first thing you though of?” I asked.
“Chores,” she said smiling as she looked back towards me.
“We had such a good work ethic,” she continued. “I mean it was never a question of if you wanted to do chores, all the animals needed to be fed. With six girls and no boys, we didn't have a choice. I mean, I never cooked or cleaned or did laundry. I was always outside. I loved it.”
“What was your favorite part of chores?”
“Probably feeding the pigs. We had a lot of hogs. We raised them from newborns to 250 pounds when they went to sale. We probably raised 6-700 a year. Nowadays that’s a pretty small farm.”
“But, a lot of work,” I added.
“Absolutely. Dad milked cows, but us girls never helped with milking. Oh, we did all the cleaning and stuff but never milked. But, that was when Grandpa was still alive and he would help milk. He’d squirt the barn cats with milk. They’d see him coming and go running. They knew they were getting milk.
Every farm has to have cats. That’s a given.
“We worked hard, but it was good work.” She spoke as if she were missing an old friend.
“I miss fall on the farm, she continued. “I think it’s so beautiful.” A smile spread across her face. “I love the smells – silage, burning leaves, you know, things like that. It takes your memory back. Or, maybe we were just little pyros and liked to burn leaves.”
We both laughed louder than we should have - probably because we know it’s true. You get to burn stuff on the farm.
Kelly also told me that, unlike most farms that don’t put money or effort into farmhouses, their mother was determined to keep their house looking sharp.
“In fact, she would knock out a wall out and tell dad that he needed to call a contractor to come out and take care of it,” Kelly explained.
He’d agree to it, because, well, there were walls knocked out.
One thing you will notice when you walk into Kelly’s office is the collection of Mickey Mouse & Disney memorabilia. It’s impressive, actually and one of the reasons I never bring my kids with me when I get my taxes done. Good grief. They’d never leave.
“So tell me about where your love of all things Mickey Mouse began?” I asked. I’d always been curious.
“I went to Disney with my friend, Beverly, in September of 1988. Her husband passed away New Year's Day of that year and so she wanted to do a vacation of some kind. So we went to Disney. We stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort and as I was walking out into the lounge area I thought, ‘This is the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in my life. I love this place.’ Then, when we went and met Mickey it was like it's like ‘oh my gosh,’” she said at a whisper. “There were only three of us and we were the only ones without kids.”
“About how old were you at that point?”
“Almost 30,” she replied. “Ever since, whenever I go I get such a rush. And, we always go and meet Mickey and get our picture taken.”
“How many times have you back?”
“I think we've gone there like 17 times. We’ve gone every year since 2010. We're both cancer survivors so we don't miss it anymore. You never know,” she said confidently.
“Tell me about cancer.”
“What do you want to know?”
We laugh. We laughed a lot during this interview.
“I'm very fortunate; very, very fortunate,” Kelly said once the laughter subsided. Her voice took a more serious tone. “I mean, I had cancer, but I got it during tax season, which meant I knew I had to be here. I never missed a day of work. I had 18 rounds of chemo; never missed a day of work. Work was good for me. Some people can't work, I understand that, but I tell everybody if you can work - work. It's a good distraction and gives you a reason to get up every morning.
“One day I was having a pity party and my oncologist told me I could leave his office and get hit by a bus. Then, I wouldn’t have died from cancer. It brought everything back in perspective.”
“Well, cancer is such a scary word,” I said in defense of all those who have heard that word from their doctor.
“Yeah, when you hear the word ‘cancer’ your brain goes ‘whoa,’ and you don't hear another thing the doctor says after that. I was fortunate. I had an excellent doctor. I had good care and made it through. Had another little ‘bout last November.”
“You did?” I was surprised. I hadn’t heard she’d had cancer a second time.
“Yeah, I had thyroid cancer,” she said as she pulled down the collar of her turtle neck revealing her scar. “But, thyroid cancer is an easy fix. They just take it out. No chemo or radiation. Nothing.
“They caught it in a chest x-ray. The chest was fine, but they saw something on my thyroid. So, they just happened to catch it.”
Switching gears faster than a racecar driver in Talladega, I asked Kelly how many years she had been working as an accountant.
“Thirty-eight,” came her response. “Although for a couple of those years I worked at a bank doing cash management, but I didn’t have any personal interaction with people and that was no good. I needed one-on-one, so I went back to this.”
“Why is it that you like accounting?” I asked and she had to think about it for a minute.
“You know, I had a teacher in high school, Mrs. Johnson, and she did, what they called it back then, the office machines and stuff like that and accounting. She’s the one that told me I should go into accounting; that I was good at it. I also had an advisor that told my parents not to waste the money on college. I didn’t do very well in his class. I invited him to my college graduation, but he never came.
“I got a job with Harold and Harold here in Rochester. There I had to learn on the run. Best education I had. I fell in love with it right away,” her face beamed. “Every tax return is different. Everybody’s story is different.”
“So you find their story in their taxes?” That sort of thing would be right up my alley.
“I know more about people's kids and divorces and marriages and, you know, people feel comfortable talking to me,” she said with a measure of surprise. “That’s part of it; you have to be a good listener. And, now I have generations: Grandpa and Grandma, Mom and Dad, Kids, and Grandkids. I love that part of it.
“The day that I don't sit across the desk from somebody to do taxes, I'm done. Anybody can work numbers. My employees give me a bad time because they think I spend more time talking than I do getting the information, but I want people to know that what’s going on in their life matters to me. It’s important to get to know people.”
If you take anything away from this interview – take that. People’s stories can be found anywhere and in just about anything. Learning to listen and be aware is the hard part.
“Which is your favorite Mickey memorabilia?” I looked around the room trying to take in all her pieces.
“Well, the gloves are the favorite,” she said pointing up behind me. I turned and saw a pair of old, tattered gloves in a frame near the ceiling.
“Tell me about those,” I prompted.
“Well, Scott got those for me.”
Scott is Kelly’s husband.
“A friend of his found them in an antique store and called him and asked if he’d be interested in them. He said yeah, get ‘em. Then he got them framed for me. When I was probably eight or nine, I had a horse and I had Mickey gloves and rode my horse and talked to myself.
There comes the laughter, again.
“Because that’s what you do on a farm. Your imagination is your entertainment, right?” I chided.
“Yeah. That’s right,” she agreed.
“What makes you angry?” I wasn’t sure anything could make her joyful spirit angry.
“Let’s see,” she thought about it, “politics will do it.”
“Okay! Moving on!” I directed quickly.
We talked about the various people she sees – rich, poor and everything in between - because the one constancy for all of us is taxes.
“Is there any particular income bracket that you have found produces the happiest people?” I wasn’t sure she’d have that sort of data available off the top of her head, but I figured she could probably offer an educated guess.
“It really depends on the person. I mean, if you’ve got more resources you should be happier, but as incomes increase, problems increase. I see higher divorce rates in higher incomes. But, things like that also come in cycles. It’s funny that way. One year will see a lot of babies being born and another year will see a lot of divorces.”
“So you see these little cycles of life happening?”
“Kelly,” I said, “you laugh a lot. Why do you think that is?”
“I think it’s just who I am. I don't take myself that seriously. I find a lot of humor in people. People are funny even when they’re trying not to be,” she giggled.
“You have to like people,” I said.
“Yeah. I like people.”
“So, you're a people watcher?” I asked with some mischievousness.
“Yeah, I can go to Disneyworld just to watch people.”
“What's the weirdest thing you ever saw at Disney World?”
“Well, there was this really weird looking old guy sitting on a bench and his shorts were really big.”
I cut her off with my laughter and she joined me.
“I don’t think you have to go much further.” My imagination was taking me really icky places.
“That sure was a sight,” she said.
“Do you think he was aware?”
“I don’t think so. But that sunburn!”
And, that seems a fitting place to end. It’s got Disney, people being people, a bit of silliness, and Kelly observing it all.
We wrapped up our time together and I mentioned I’d be back in a month or so for my tax appointment. Kelly invited me to bring the kids this time and I once again told her that would be insane. There were three of them and only one of me. I’d never be able to effectively stop them from destroying her Mickey Mouse memorabilia.
But, I’d bring myself, and my numbers, and see what sort of story she’d find.