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!)
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."
DEBUNK SERVING SPOONS
In my poorly
and dirt. To the
rescue: just a little
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.
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.
NO IRON NEEDED
With bag clips
its hem, a pleated
skirt dries perfectly,
little or no pressing
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.
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.
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:
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.
coming clean THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF ALL
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.
Who knew that a
cold-water soak can
clothes better than
wash? Don't dry it!
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.
a syringe (try a
straight into the
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
This time, I relax in the soft Texas
sun, listen to the grackles, and laugh
with Heloise about our spouses'
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
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.
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
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
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. •