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My Weekend with Heloise


Beset by stains, spills, and pet odors, I paid a visit to the domestic guru...and learned way more than just household hints

By Amanda Robb • Photographs by Wendell T. Webber • Still life by Kate Sears

Some couples bond during adventure vacations, others over the genius of their cats. My husband and I are united by our battle against grime. Bliss, to the two of us, is an afternoon with old toothbrushes and moldy grout. So when I am invited to spend a weekend with the high priestess of housekeeping, Heloise, in her home, it is like being sent to my own personal nirvana. I start packing right away.

My husband immediately starts listing his most urgent needs: What can we do about our designer Plexiglas chair, which is chronically cloudy? Our bathroom grout, which won't stay clean? The greasy film on the ceiling of our poorly ventilated kitchen? The omnipresent odor of dachshund urine in our two surviving area rugs (and, truth be told, even emanating from the hardwood f loors themselves)? Can Heloise possibly referee the fight of our marriage? (I say poisonous chemical cleaners are awesome, because they kill bacteria. My husband says they are the devil's brew, because they will kill us!)
My Weekend with Heloise

Beset by stains, spills, and pet odors, I paid a visit to the domestic guru...and learned way more than just household hints.
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I arrive at Heloise's San Antonio home and instantly spot her silver mane in the doorway. She warmly greets me, and I can't help noticing three giant super-white areas on the 138 good housekeeping March 2013 cement in the driveway. Are they a cleaning experiment?

Heloise laughs and nods. "Mold-busting." Pointing with a lavender-painted fingernail, she reveals which magic substance has been applied to each spot. The area cleaned with vinegar alone is slightly dull, but the one cleaned with vinegar and baking soda is just as blindingly bright as the one cleaned with bleach. "And the mixture is completely safe for plants and animals. Bleach, you know, can be dangerous," Heloise says. "I'll never understand why people rush to clean with products that can kill the people and things they love."

Wow—I'm not even past the driveway, and Heloise has resolved the argument between my spouse and me. And he has won.

We step inside the home that Heloise and her husband, David, built together 31 years ago and where they raised David's son, Russell. It's not decorator-y at all. In fact, the wall-to-wall carpet throughout would probably make Nate Berkus cry—an observation that spills out of my mouth before I can stop it.

Heloise rolls her eyes. "My feet like to be comfy."
My Weekend with Heloise

In my poorly ventilated kitchen, utensils have become coated with grease and dirt. To the rescue: just a little lemon ammonia.

I follow her into the (also carpeted) kitchen, where she offers me a glass of her iced "surprise tea"—she tosses in whatever tea bags she has on hand and is usually delighted with the results—and invites me to show her what I've brought. How does she know I've packed a few almost unsalvageably soiled items? It seems no one ever shows up at Heloise's house empty-handed, and my chance to watch the domestic diva in action has already arrived.

stainbuster #1 FABRIC FIASCOES

I pull out a white shirt and a red skirt from my handbag. Each has a big, brown stain on it, as do many of my clothes. Detective Heloise takes a quick peek and just knows: "Coffee," she correctly ID's.

"I'm addicted," I blurt out. "Even if I'm running superlate, I stop and buy a cup, and I always spill on myself."

I also pull out my daughter's favorite shirt—with a squiggle of Sharpie marker on the front.

Heloise isn't fazed at all. She places my coffee-stained garments in a big bowl of cold water, then attacks the Sharpie spot with cleaning fluid (the kind sold at drugstores and hardware stores). It turns from black to yellow, but won't completely disappear. "There must be an optical brightener in this fabric," Heloise says, explaining that some clothes are manufactured with optical brightening agents (OBAs), which make them look whiter but can change how fabrics react to some stain removers. But she's not giving up yet.
My Weekend with Heloise

With bag clips weighing down its hem, a pleated skirt dries perfectly, little or no pressing required!

She pops into a bathroom and grabs the "last resort": rubbing alcohol. She places the soiled area of the shirt facedown over a layer of paper towel, dabbing and blotting at the marker from behind with a rubbing alcohol–soaked cloth. It's slow going, but magically, most of the stain migrates to the paper towel. In the end, it’s not perfect, but it's presentable enough for a 12-year-old to wear. I feel like applauding. My daughter will be thrilled.

stainbuster #2 A MYSTERY UNGUNKED

"What else have you got for me?" Heloise asks.

I pull out a plastic bag holding a serving spoon that usually resides on a top shelf near my stove. It's covered with the fine, sticky crud that coats the entire top of our kitchen.

Heloise's eyes widen.

"My husband made me bring it," I stammer. But then my utter humiliation gives way to a kind of jubilation. Sherlock Heloise is so completely intrigued by the spoon's grossness that I am proud to be its owner. She eyeballs it. Sniffs it. Strokes its sticky surface. "Exactly how poorly ventilated is your kitchen?" she queries.

Horribly, I inform her. No window. No vent over the stove. Heloise shakes her head grimly, but then, like some sort of transforming cleaning superhero, she whisks her hair into a quick bun and dives under her sink.

There's some clinking and banging, and she resurfaces with a bottle of... lemon ammonia, the most potent degreaser in her arsenal, which she uses on a microfiber cloth to wipe my spoon until it's sparkling.

My Weekend with Heloise

Moisture causes dark rings like this one. Sprinkle on a 50/50 mix of baking soda and salt; add a squeeze of lemon juice. Scrub (using the lemon rind, as here, or a cloth) until ring is gone

stainbuster #3 COFFEE SPILLS TO GO >
Top Stain-Removal Tips
First, read the label! Respect the words "Dry Clean Only" and don’t try to launder those items at home. If the fabric is washable:
My Weekend with Heloise

Makeup Pretreat with prewash stain remover or liquid laundry detergent. Then launder in the hottest water safe for the fabric to help dissolve waxes and oils


Chocolate If using laundry presoak fails, dab at the spot with 1 tsp. ammonia in 1 c. water (don’t use on wool or silk blends); rinse, and wash


Red Wine Cover the stain with salt to absorb excess; wait five or 10 minutes and brush off. Put item in cold water; gently rub out the spot


Deodorant Sponge white vinegar on the area; wait 30 minutes. Wash in the hottest water that’s safe for the fabric, using a detergent with bleach alternative

Now it's time to check on my coffee stains. After just the cold-water soak, the stain in the skirt is gone—all gone! And the one on the shirt is a ghost of its former self. Not yet content, Heloise attacks the latter with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. The stain is fading fast.

She leads the way to a patio swing that looks out over the backyard. The view is mostly of a raw Texan landscape—craggy live oak trees and sweet bluebells—and cranky grackles are cawing. There, swaying gently, I air my cleaning quandaries, and Heloise taps the knowledge her mother, the original cleaning guru named Heloise, passed down to her as well as her 35-plus years of hands-on experimentation while doing research for her columns, books, and TV.

stainbusters #4 through #8 A BRIGHT AND SHINY HOME

I ask Heloise what to do about some of my home's most vexing problems and discover that two homey ingredients turn up again and again. As any longtime reader of her advice will know, these are baking soda and white vinegar—cheap, nontoxic, easy to find, and effective. Baking soda, I learn, can de-stink and clean all kinds of things, like:

A smelly garbage disposal Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. or so of baking soda in it along with a few drops of dishwashing liquid. Scrub with a brush (a new toilet brush works well), getting all around the interior. Turn on the water and the disposal; run for a minute. For a citrus scent, throw in a few cut-up lemons and run through the disposal with water.

A less-than-fresh dishwasher Sprinkle about 1/3 c. baking soda in the bottom of the unit. Let sit for about 30 minutes, then run one cycle.

Clogged drains Pour 1/2 c. baking soda and 1/4 c. salt, then 1/2 c. vinegar, into the clogged drain. Wait 15 to 20 minutes; run hot water for one minute, then cold water for one minute. Repeat if necessary.

Heloise swears by her other favorite low-tech cleaner, vinegar, which puts in a guest appearance above—she prefers the plain old white variety (I counted nine bottles stashed around her home). She explains some of the myriad items this simple supermarket staple can help clean:

Cloudy glasses Soak dishwasher-safe items in hot vinegar for 20 minutes, then use a nylon net or plastic scrubber to whisk away the film. If the glasses are still cloudy, sorry: They have little scratches in the surface (having become "etched"), and the damage is permanent. But, she says, maybe you can love them and use them all the same—with her green philosophy, Heloise isn't quick to replace less-than-perfect products.

Dingy windows and dull mirrors With a microfiber cloth or newspaper (yes, balled-up newspaper—it's lint-free)— rub a little vinegar on surfaces to make them shine.


With all this great advice in hand, I can't resist asking Heloise for help with one more personal problem: my bathroom's filthy grout. She tosses off her favorite fix: Stir two tablespoons of bleach into a cup of water, then dip a cotton swab or toothbrush into the solution and go at the grout. I protest that this is exactly what I do. She asks how often, and I admit it's every other week.

"Amanda, you're obsessed with cleaning. I'm worried about you!" she says.

This is not what I had expected to hear from the author of more than 11 best sellers on housekeeping.
My Weekend with Heloise

Who knew that a cold-water soak can clean latte-splashed clothes better than a hot-water wash? Don't dry it! When working on a stain, don’t stick the garment in the dryer until it's as clean as possible, or you'll set the stain

OK, I am a little weepy at this moment in my visit. It’s not because my fantasy of Heloise cleaning from dawn to dusk, giddy with an apron tied on and a feather duster in hand, has been busted to smithereens, but because I am embarrassed—outed as the kid who thinks The Sound of Music is about the awesomeness of singing nuns, not doing what your heart knows is right.

"Let’s talk about your coffee problem," Heloise says.

"I don’t want to stop carrying coffee," I pout.

"Yes, that would be a terrible solution, because carrying coffee is something that gives you pleasure. But I’m guessing you usually carry it around in a cardboard cup with a flat or sip top. Why not get a thermal cup, with a top that has a high edge and a lower center, that can't spill? Bring it when you buy coffee and ask the store to fill it—but not all the way up."

She calmly solves my grout problem, too, explaining that the grout keeps getting dirty because it hasn’t been sealed: "Just buy any sealer at a hardware store, paint it on with a little brush, wait an hour, and repeat. After that, you and your husband will have to think of something else to do every other weekend."

Heloise and I finish our tea and go back inside. The wash is done, and she throws the shirts in the dryer, but she hangs the pleated skirt up, attaching bag clips along its bottom as weights so as to get all the wrinkles out—I won't have to spend a single moment ironing.
My Weekend with Heloise

odors from a pooch’s accidents, Heloise, using a syringe (try a medical-supply website), injects her prized white vinegar straight into the problem area until she hits the rug pad

The next morning I return, and we do a few experiments—heating shelled hard-boiled eggs in the microwave without having them explode (hint: stick a toothpick in each). We go for a long lunch at her favorite Greek restaurant, then perch on her patio swing with her iced surprise tea again.

This time, I relax in the soft Texas sun, listen to the grackles, and laugh with Heloise about our spouses' eccentricities.

back at my ranch TESTING THOSE TIPS

When I arrive home, my husband greets me at the door of our apartment, ready to try some new housecleaning hints. I can't crush him that quickly; he looks so excited about pairing up for a clean-a-thon.

We spend the next day attacking our remaining rugs (really, the rug pads beneath our dachshund’s favorite spot) with a syringe, then improvise a bit and try shooting vinegar into the foam where the dog had an accident on a chair. It does take time, but the smell dissipates, then disappears. I look at our pet a little more lovingly.

Next, we attack our kitchen with lemon ammonia (it took some serious hunting to find the stuff; I finally located it on a bottom shelf at a mom-and-pop hardware store). Almost everything gets degunked and degreased, but the walls, fixtures, and cabinets take a lot of scrubbing.
My Weekend with Heloise

To banish funky smells, put 1 c. water, a cut-up lemon, and some mint sprigs in a bowl that holds at least 4 cups. Heat on High 2 or 3 minutes until it boils; let sit (door shut) at least 15 minutes. Open; wipe down

Then I do two loads of laundry and hang up all the wrinkly stuff with bag clips weighting the bottom hems. I don’t have to iron rayon and other synthetics at all if I use this drying technique, and my ironing time for light cottons is easily cut down by a third to half.

I buy the thermal coffee cup with a lid that has high sides and a low area in the middle—and no, I haven't had a coffee accident since.

Finally, my husband and I move our efforts into our bathroom. Heloise's baking-soda/salt/vinegar solution has zero effect on our clogged drain. It turns out there's a lot of hair matted in there; the drain needs to be snaked. Time to call a plumber.

Last of all, as we have so many times before, we clean our grout. This time, we also seal it.

With the time freed up by having to do less scrubbing, we don't take up skydiving or motorcycle-riding. But, thanks to Heloise, my husband and I do go see a movie.


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