Would You Swear There’s No Vomit on Your Living Room Carpet?

A spring-cleaning puzzle for the modern woman.

Like most of the rest of the women in America, I read the recent New York magazine essay on “The Retro Wife” with my mouth wide open in disbelief. In case somehow you missed it , “The Retro Wife” tells the story of the brave new anti-feminist wives and moms who are turning their backs on careerhood and instead digging deep down into the pleasures of being a stay-at-home mom. Yes, we’re back to that war again. What I like most about the piece is that its brave poster-mom, Kelly Makino, turns out to have actually been a stay-at-home mom for less than a year—and confesses she’s, well, a little bored. I’m sure things have picked up for her since the story appeared in mid-March, however, since it’s now spring-cleaning time.

Years ago, on one of my first trips to my husband’s hometown, we visited his grandmother, who was in the midst of spring cleaning. At the age of 70-something, she was up on a ladder in her kitchen with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, washing the walls. I had never seen anyone wash interior walls before. My mom was a painter—not the artistic type, the roller type. When our walls got dirty, she slapped on another coat of Sherwin Williams. Watching Doug’s grandmother at work made me pretty sure my mom had the right idea. I’m not the washing-walls kind, either. Or the dust-the-bookshelves kind, really. Or the vacuuming kind. I houseclean on an as-needed basis, which is to say on an oh-hell-someone’s-coming-over basis. You couldn’t eat off my kitchen floor, but who’d want to eat off a kitchen floor? That’s what the table’s for.

But speaking of floors, when we moved into our house 20 years ago, the previous owners had just put in wall-to-wall carpet. They had two boys under the age of five and a big black Lab named Perky. They should have called him Sheddy, because that’s what he seemed to have done, 24/7. So I had the carpets professionally cleaned not long after we moved in. A couple of guys and a truck and a steam hose, and most of Perky left the premises, just in time to be replaced by our new puppy, who didn’t just shed but also pooped and peed all over the rugs.

Our dog lived a long, happy life before succumbing to death a few years ago. Our two kids did their share of peeing, pooping, vomiting and spilling on the carpets, but that’s all in the past. Now they’re out on their own, so a few weeks ago I made an appointment to have the carpet-cleaners come visit again. The woman I spoke to on the phone gave a little speech about moving all the moveable furniture out ahead of time, and vacuuming, and oh, if there was any “vomit, urine or excrement” on the rugs, they’d charge extra for cleaning that up.

I was taken aback. I may not be the world’s best housekeeper, but I don’t think I have vomit or excrement on my living room rug. Well, I didn’t think so, anyway, until I told my husband about this caveat, whereupon he grew thoughtful and said, “You know, there probably is some vomit on the rug somewhere. Remember that time when Marcy’s friend Christine got drunk and threw up all over the place?” (Hi, Christine!)

“That was more than a year ago,” I countered. “I cleaned that up really well!” But that got me wondering: “Do you think they bring in one of those black-light things like on CSI to look for excrement and vomit?” Which would be pretty cool, but also, blech, you know? I don’t really want to know what’s on that rug; I just want it gone.

There wasn’t any black light when the time came, though, just a different two guys and a truck and a steam hose. “How old are the carpets?” the guy who was in charge asked me before they started.

“Twenty years,” I told him.

“And when’s the last time you had them cleaned?”

Hmmm. To lie, or not to lie? “Um … 19 years?” I said tentatively. He actually did a double-take.

“Oh boy,” he said. “We recommend that you have them cleaned professionally every 18 months,” To which I wanted to say, “Well, hell, kid, of course you do; that’s what buys your groceries. What buys my groceries is not paying $200 every year and a half to have my damned rugs cleaned.” But I didn’t. Instead I shrugged and laughed and beat down his strong suggestion that I have the carpets treated with an antibacterial agent. He should have known that was a losing cause. If I only have my rugs shampooed every two decades, does he really think I give a damn about mold?

He and his companion went upstairs and started steaming away in the hallway. They did some pretreatment of a few spots, but really, the process didn’t take much longer than a regular old vacuuming, though they did leave all the rugs quite wet, which I kept forgetting until I stepped on them in my socks. The place looked great when they finished. And they didn’t turn up a speck of excrement. Hooray!

“You know,” the guy in charge confided as I wrote him a check, “your rugs are in pretty good shape for being as old as they are.” Which is almost as old, I think, as he was. “They put more wool in them back then, Now, there’s more polyester. They don’t wear as well.” What I wanted to tell him, of course, is that the rugs are in such good shape because I only have them steam-cleaned every 20 years. Oh, and I hardly ever vacuum, either. I decided a long time ago that the rewards of a sparkling-clean house aren’t worth the drudgery. Unless, of course, you pay someone else to be the drudge.