SARASOTA, Fla. — Given the volume of letters, notes, and shout-outs from motorists and pedestrians, the Bubble Lady of South Orange Avenue has had a driveway hit on her hands for the last seven years. Some of the messages are quick scrawls wedged onto scraps of paper. Others are gushers:
?… I look forward to the experience of driving through your bubble cloud. I glance down the road after ensuring that I am driving at the maximum 25 miles an hour. Then I can enter into a small fairy land of floating orbs that have been placed there just because they are lovely and fun. Whoosh, the bubbles spin and whirl and they seem to dance with my passage. All too soon, though, I’m released back into the land of the mundane. But I still retain my smile, the smile that you gave me.”
Her real name is Suzanne Beecher, but most bubble-lovers just scribble “The Bubble Lady” or “The Bubble House” above the address.
The blinds are drawn at midday in the tidy sunroom, its walls vibrant with what at first glance appears to be wallpaper brightened with paisleys and flower buds. But no, the repeating patterns and sublime handiwork are actually brushstrokes applied by a friend to inspire the Bubble Lady, who on this day is in no obvious pain. Bright thin strips of fabric hang like an unfinished rainbow from a clothesline stretched across two windows.
More accurately, this is the sewing-machine room now, where ideas are spun and nothing gets wasted. No scraps of cloth are too small or inconsequential for her quilts; the pieces will all fit, somewhere. She has a thing for fabric patterns from the 1930s, but she doesn’t know exactly why. The Bubble Lady also likes to wear vintage clothing and secondhand garments from Goodwill, preferably one size too big. She has a thing for Jazz Age flapper hats, too, especially those with brims to keep the sun out of her eyes.
Most of the time she doesn’t know who the quilts are for. The names will materialize later. Only on rare occasions will her gifts go to waste. The most memorable occurred long ago, when the Wisconsin native mailed one to her mother. When the Bubble Lady went to visit, she found the quilt — she chuckles lightly now, as if she’s over it — “crumpled up in the corner of the garage, in the dirt.”
Dad was an alcoholic; after church, on the way home, he would stop off at the bar and bring his daughter inside with him. He and Mom would sometimes throw things at each other during screaming matches, but their bonds were tight and exclusive. Nothing their daughter ever did could measure up.
In retrospect, the Bubble Lady, now a 63-year-old grandmother, says she made her share of mistakes. Getting pregnant at 16 was just one of them. “I was an only child,” she says, “and my parents never really liked me. But I still wanted a relationship with them.”
Years into their estrangement, the Bubble Lady tried to rebuild that bridge by pouring her heart into a letter, then another, and another. Only the third provoked a response. “They sent me a one-line letter,” she says. “They said, ‘We went to see the minister and we’re not taking responsibility for how you turned out.'”
Mom and Dad are gone now, but the Bubble Lady retained what she calls a “generic” Christian faith. And in 2010, she chronicled how she turned out in a beguiling little book called “Muffins & Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life.”
Storylines drizzled with recipes for odds and ends like “Funeral cakes” and “Suzanne’s Whoops! Banana Bread,” the memoir breezes through her careers in restaurant ownership, business magazine publishing, and a continuing gig at the helm of DearReader.com. In the latter, she stewards an online book club touting selected reads from Random House and subscribing libraries. But the upbeat tenor of “Muffins & Mayhem” belies some hideous setbacks.
In one chapter, while riding on the back of her “loser boyfriend’s” Harley-Davidson, the Bubble Lady becomes a human projectile during an auto accident that sends her crashing into the front seat of the instigating convertible, ricocheting off the driver, and landing unconscious on the pavement. Worse still is the diagnosis she gets, at age 34, of a rare eye disorder called Benign Essential Blepharospasm (BEB).
A condition that usually strikes the elderly, BEB makes it difficult to keep the eyelids open and can leave sufferers functionally blind. Regular injections of botox — and lately, low-THC medicinal marijuana — keep those windows to the world from closing altogether. The biggest breakthrough, she writes in “Muffins & Mayhem,” was when she decided to quit grieving and accept BEB: “… Things are different now, because ever since that morning, my eye disorder and I have been friends.”
The Bubble Lady has since had to confront yet another pernicious adversary called occipital neuralgia. This is a (she suspects) stress-related “kill-me-now” pain that begins throbbing in the back of her neck and loops around to her eyes. This is where the bubbles come in.
Readers will not find bubbles mentioned in “Muffins & Mayhem.” The affectation is a relatively recent acquisition.
A late bloomer, the Bubble Lady never dipped and blew as a child. What she discovered as an adult, by chance, was how, as she watched those iridescent glinting bubbles scattering with the wind, they distracted her from the pain. So she bought a bubble machine and took it with her whenever she thought she might be sitting for awhile.
One day, when she had nowhere to be, the Bubble Lady decided to park the thing in the driveway and crank it up. She watched from the porch. She watched runners and cyclists whiff through the bubblestreams, dogs giving chase, kids in pursuit, honks and waves from motorists. She corralled Bob, her husband of 38 years, into keeping it running with hourly refills of “Miracle Bubble.”
“At first I was a little self-conscious, especially when people would come along,” says Bob. “I used to just say my wife was weird. But I’ve gotten past that. God came to me said, ‘Look, it ain’t gonna be easy. But it sure won’t be boring, either.'”
Today, bubbles spew from the driveway on a semi-regular schedule. An early riser, the Bubble Lady lets the machine rip shortly after daybreak, then shuts it down right around the drive-home rush hour. No weekends off. Joggers sometimes yell for the bubbles if she’s late. Usually, the only thing that can stop the spigot is bad weather.
Sometimes total strangers will show up at the door and make bubble-machine inquiries. She tells them electric bubble-makers are more reliable than battery-operated models. Her Chauvet DJ is the workhorse of her three-piece inventory. Sometimes strangers leave money and bubble solution to make sure they get their bubbles the next time they swing by.
Sarasota artist Connie Buckler helped design the Bubble Lady’s sewing room some five years ago. The result was an unanticipated sort of friendship.
“Suzanne is different. She has the energy of a child,” Buckler says. The experience reaffirmed her belief that “there is a soul, that we’re connected to something more resilient than ourselves.”
The Bubble Lady laughs easily and frequently, even when discussing death. Recently, in her DearReader blog, she expressed reservations about what goes on in heaven, that maybe things are a little too perfect up there, that she might not have enough to keep her busy. Which sets up a segue about her final encounter with Dad.
It had been six years since they had spoken to each other. Then she got the phone call, urging her to hurry, Dad was dying. He was unconscious and alone when she arrived. She sat on his bed and started singing some old church hymns, the way she used to.
“Then he woke up and he touched my face,” she says. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I never knew it would come to this.’ He went out again and died an hour after that. I interpreted that as, he was sorry he treated me the way he did. I guess he was shocked there was no second chance, that this was it.”
For the Bubble Lady, Dad’s laconic morsel of regret was enough. Sometimes the little things count more than the obvious.
She sends her guest away with a batch of chocolate chip cookies from her oven.
Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com