By Mary Beth Breckenridge
She relays household hints with warmth and sensibility
I've been failing to measure up to Heloise for a long time.
I started reading "Hints from Heloise'' when I was a kid, although I'm still not sure why. The state of my bedroom proved I didn't use any of the tips. But often I would wander across the page to her column after reading Ann Landers, who I was sure held the answers to my adolescent angst.
So I remember well when Heloise II came onto the scene, the columnist's daughter and super-efficient second fiddle. I specifically recall the senior Heloise writing about her clever daughter's habit of using her towel to wipe up the bathroom vanity every morning before tossing the towel into the dirty laundry, and I remember wondering, Who changes the towels every day?
So imagine my relief when I discovered that Heloise the younger is, well, human.
"I'm looking at nose prints on the sliding glass door right now,'' she admitted over the phone from the office in her home in San Antonio, where I'd called to interview her in belated honor of her 25th anniversary at the column's helm. (The prints presumably belonged not to her, but to her dogs, J.D. and Cabbie, short for Cabernet.)
Heloise -- she long ago dropped the "II'' -- inherited the household-hints mantle when her mother died in 1977. She'd been working with her mother since her graduation from Southwest Texas State University in 1974, but in reality she'd been helping with the column for years and learning from her mother all her life.
Eloise Cruse started the column in 1959 in the Honolulu Advertiser while her husband, an Air Force pilot, was stationed in Hawaii. The "H'' was added to her name when the column was syndicated, because "Hints from Eloise'' just didn't have the right ring.
The column, her daughter explained, grew out of a newsletter Cruse had begun as a way for military wives to share ideas and help one another while they were far from family and familiar products. The column won her a $25 bet with a man who'd scoffed at the idea. It also won her almost instant notice.
The column became wildly popular in Hawaii, and within two years it was appearing in hundreds of newspapers. Today "Hints from Heloise'' is syndicated in more than 500 newspapers, including the Akron Beacon Journal.
At 51, the current Heloise sits atop an enterprise that also includes a column in Good Housekeeping magazine, books, lectures and a radio show. That doesn't leave her a lot of time for housework, but that's fine with her. She believes in balance, not perfection.
"Look, the housework will keep. Your family won't,'' she said. That's not to say she advocates squalor, but she recognizes that some things can -- and should -- slide now and then.
She got that attitude, along with her knowledge and common-sense wisdom, from her mother. Things were orderly but not antiseptic when she was growing up, she said, and she can recall times of "total chaos'' when her mother's latest book would be spread all over the dining room table or her father would serve bacon, eggs and ketchup for dinner when her mother was out of town.
Her mother's fame and periodic travel, coupled with the fact that her mother worked at home long before that was common, meant theirs wasn't a typical household. Neither is hers. She recalled a time when her stepson came home from school to find a network morning show preparing for a live broadcast from her house, the crew having brought in seven phone lines and blocked off rooms where the cameras would be shooting. She saw his reaction, and "suddenly it was a flashback to Mom.''
Her life can be hectic, and she conceded it's not exactly uninterrupted bliss. Like everyone else, she said, she has days when she doesn't want to get up in the morning, times when she doesn't want to get on an airplane for yet another out-of-town engagement. But she also has the satisfaction of knowing she's helping people.
"There's something about when readers write in and say, `Thanks for the hint. It helped,' '' she said. "It's not earth-shattering. This isn't curing cancer.'' But it's gratifying.
Heloise isn't her given name, but her mother had it legally added when she was 18. Her whole name is Ponce Kiah Marchelle Heloise Cruse Evans, but professionally -- and to all but her oldest friends -- she's Heloise.
She writes with a warmth and down-to-earth sensibility that readers seem to embrace. She'll sign off an answer with "Hugs, Heloise'' or sprinkle her columns with enthusiastic exclamation points over her readers' stain-removal tricks or frugal finds.
Of course, not every suggestion she gets merits such a welcome response. She laughed over one reader's letter that proudly recounted his family's money-saving efforts, which included separating two-ply toilet paper and re-rolling it into two rolls, and putting a piece of toilet paper inside a facial tissue, then throwing away the used TP but reusing the tissue. "Ew, don't tell me this. I don't want to know this,'' she said.
Her subjects are ages old, but Heloise is hardly an anachronism. Readers seem to need her hints more than they did 20 years ago, she said -- particularly people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom had working mothers and might not have learned housekeeping by doing or observing.
With materials and technology changing all the time, she and her staff have to keep on top of things. She consults with trade organizations and other experts for updated information, and she'll periodically revisit an old hint to tell readers why it's no longer recommended. For instance, she used to suggest using a brown paper bag to make microwave popcorn, but she's since nixed that advice because of the use of pesticides on some bags and the presence of metal in some recycled paper.
Even in this age of easily accessible information, people still flood Heloise with questions. Maybe they're pressed for time and want an easy answer, she said. Maybe they just don't know where to turn.
At any rate, she intends to keep dispensing her household advice.
I promise I'll pay closer attention.