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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Full Suburban: Robot vacuum Mr. Bates is the newest member of the family

Julia Ditto’s boys are mesmerized while watching their new robot vacuum Mr. Bates maneuver through an obstacle course.  (Julia Ditto/For The Spokesman-Review)
Julia Ditto’s boys are mesmerized while watching their new robot vacuum Mr. Bates maneuver through an obstacle course. (Julia Ditto/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Julia Ditto For The Spokesman-Review

I finally bought a robot vacuum. I’ve written before about my desire for one of these magical appliances, which I first saw in action while visiting my aunt and uncle in their spotless, robot-maintained home in Southern California. I was instantly smitten.

The floors of my house are often littered with pet hair, tiny scraps of paper and crumbs left over from an errant snack that some child had the nerve to take away from the table. We vacuum and sweep, sure, but the pileup of detritus is pretty relentless. I wanted some robot help.

Normally, robot vacuums cost hundreds of dollars – some are even into the thousands – and I just couldn’t bring myself to splurge on one. And then one morning, I got a text from my frugal sister-in-law, Sara, with a link to a robot vacuum that was on sale for “the lowest price ever!”

When the thriftiest person you know tells you that something you’ve been wanting is on sale for a screaming deal, you don’t even think about it. You just buy. The vacuum arrived a few days later.

My kids were beside themselves with excitement at the thought of a robot doing one of their chores, and they begged to start it up right away. We all watched with ridiculously rapt attention as it meandered its way across our floor.

“I feel like it needs a name,” 16-year-old Lucy said. “It’s like a member of our family now.” After a few minutes of discussion, we landed on the name Mr. Bates, after the hardworking, loyal and possibly murderous servant on Downton Abbey.

(Fun fact: One byproduct of quarantine is the new Sunday night tradition of watching “Downton Abbey” reruns with our older kids. We’re on Season 5, and things are not looking good for Mr. Bates currently. Please don’t tell the vacuum.)

We quickly learned that Mr. Bates is not exactly an impressive ambassador for the robot vacuum world. He’ll roam around and suck up plenty of stuff, but there’s no real method to his madness. It’s kind of like watching a blindfolded 2-year-old wander around the kitchen looking for a bag of fruit snacks.

“I thought he was going to use advanced robot technology to, I don’t know, map out the perimeter of our living room and then systematically cover every square inch,” I said after watching him for a while.

“You’re thinking of the thousand-dollar version,” Logan replied. “Mr. Bates is just lucky he doesn’t fall down the stairs.”

So, I’ve lowered my expectations a bit. I’ll set Mr. Bates loose in the morning and then simultaneously sweep our kitchen, knowing that he just doesn’t have the wherewithal to get in all the corners or locate the remains of an entire muffin that was dropped under the table at breakfast.

I’ll patiently come to his rescue when he gets stuck under our bed or sucks up a stray sock and is rendered useless until I fish it back out.

As I was typing this very column, he ambled into our office and bumped around under my desk for a solid two minutes before I finally gave him a little shove with my foot so he could free himself and move onto his next random pattern.

But what Mr. Bates lacks in housework efficiency, he more than makes up for in entertainment value. I used to wonder what I would do with my time now that my most demanding child, 5-year-old Hyrum, has been allowed to return to in-person kindergarten.

Now I know: I will watch, mesmerized, as Mr. Bates slowly makes his way all the way across the floor to return to his docking station. I can’t tear my eyes off him. The kids are similarly enthralled.

“Can we turn on Mr. Bates?” my little boys will ask me after school, bouncing up and down with the same excitement as kids being told they can get something from the ice cream truck.

“Well, OK, but only if you pick up all these Legos off the floor first,” I’ll reply, and they’ll do it immediately. Add “excellent nanny” to Mr. Bates’ resume. I’d say he’s worth every heavily discounted penny we paid for him.

Julia Ditto shares her life with her husband, six children and a random menagerie of farm animals in Spokane Valley. She can be reached at dittojulia@gmail.com.

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