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THROUGH the STORMA Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World
By LYNNE SPEARS LORILEE CRAKER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Lynne Spears
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom There to Here
I remember one night in 2000, when Britney was on stage, wearing a beautiful, glittery costume and singing to the rafters of a packed-out arena. Thousands of lighters were flickering all over the room, held by music fans who we re swaying and singing along to every lyric of every song.
Something about that scene reminded me, somehow, of the first time Britney was ever on any kind of a stage, as a shy little girl of four, with her head cocked to the side and her hands clasped. It was at the Christmas program of the day care I owned and operated, and she was singing "What Child Is This?" in her tiny angel voice.
How did we ever get from there to here?
Her dreams had come true, beyond her wildest imagination, and now she was up on this huge stage, sharing her gift with so many people. It was such a golden time. My heart swelled with pride, not only for her, but for her siblings as well. Jamie Lynn was just nine years old, doing well in school and thriving with her social life with her friends. Bryan, my oldest, was in New York City, proving himself as a businessman, making new friends, and becoming the man I knew he could be.
My children's dreams were coming true, and so, in a way, were mine. My marriage had ended, and with it years of pain and shame. I was free of all that for the first time in twenty-four years, and it felt amazing. Britney was building me a big, beautiful home, prettier and more grandiose than anything I ever imagined I would have. The two of us had traveled to some fantastic, exotic locations and had such wonderful times together.
I was on top of the world.
And then things came tumbling down.
It's hard to believe things can change so drastically in seven short years. In January 2007, my sister died, and two weeks later, I got a call that would irrevocably change my life forever. The caller told me something so shocking, so disturbing, I could barely believe that it was true. But soon enough, I was to see the evidence with my own two eyes. I wanted to be in denial, but I couldn't deny the video footage unfolding in front of me. It was Britney, and she was shaving off her beautiful hair. All I could think of was, How can this be? She used to be the happiest little girl in the world.
To see that girl, with such despondency in her eyes ... it broke my heart in a million pieces. My world was crumbling around me. And once again, I wondered, How did we ever get from there to here?
My sister, Sandra, did not have her official driver's license when we used to go driving together, she at the wheel and me riding shotgun, cracking gum and letting the wind blow through my hair. We were country girls, through and through. In those days in rural places it was common to have twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds tooling around back roads and even town streets in their daddies' cars.
When Sandra was about fifteen, Mama sent her to Kentwood to get some groceries, and as usual, I was her wing woman. Sandra was quite responsible and a good driver-for a fifteen-year-old!-but that day she hit another car, and not just any car either, a gleaming Cadillac with a boat hooked up to the back of it. Neither of us was hurt, but when Daddy found out, he was livid.
"You couldn't have hit a beat-up old Ford pickup, could you?" He stormed and sputtered. "Nooo. You had to go and hit a Cadillac with a boat hookup!"
Sandra was in the doghouse forever.
Daddy never forgot that wreck. Countless times before Sandra was about to step out the door and go someplace, he would throw in his two cents: "Sandra, be careful. Watch what you're doing. I don't want you to go hitting another Cadillac, now. You take care of yourself, because I don't want to lose you!"
With everything that happened in my life after I became an adult and a mother, I'm grateful my heart was not hardened to those beautiful times, although I doubt beautiful is the word my daddy would have used at the time. Expensive was more like it. Now that Sandra is gone, these memories bring healing and comfort, tears and laughter. I can still see her face when she hit that Cadillac!
When the hard moments and hours of grief threaten to overtake me, these snapshots from our lives together give me strength.
From Malta to Louisiana
Kentwood, Louisiana, is not exactly an exotic destination. There's basically the Kentwood Café, Connie's Jewelers, a bunch of dollar stores, and a Sonic Drive-In, the hub of the community. Everybody knows everybody for generations, and my daddy's people have been in that area as far back as anyone can remember.
But on my mama's side, the family tree is a little more colorful and glamorous. Her father, my grandfather, was Anthony Portelli, who came from the island of Malta. Malta is a small, densely populated nation consisting of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, and north of Libya, in case you were curious. Now you'll know the answer next time you're on a TV quiz show.
Anthony Portelli came to England in the 1920s, married a British girl, and changed his name to Portell. The Portells had two daughters: Joan, my aunt, and Lillian, my mother.
Mama grew up in London, a city she loved and missed until the day she died. I can remember her telling me stories of how she and her family survived the Blitz. In September 1940, the Nazis began their sustained bombing of the United Kingdom by blasting my mother's hometown for fifty-seven nights in a row.
She had a bit of a stubborn streak, and one night during the Blitz, she didn't want to go to the air raid shelter across the street from her house. It was a nasty, dirty, smelly place, she said, and she refused to join her parents and sister, despite their pleading with her to come. It wasn't a good night to test fate, as it turned out. The shelling was so close, the roof of their house was blown right off.
Mama grabbed her beloved dog and ran screaming across the street, with her father yelling, "Run, Lil, run!" She cut her feet running on the broken glass all over the ground, but she made it to the air raid shelter, safe and sound.
It must have been soon after that when my parents met. Daddy was in the United States Army, serving his country overseas during World War II. There were dances in London for the soldiers, and at one such dance, Barney Bridges and Lillian Portell first laid eyes on each other. Mama was lovely, with her father's dark Maltese coloring, and she just sparkled with fun. Daddy was very handsome, too, but he also had an advantage over the other American soldiers: as a driver for the U.S. generals, he had access to some goodies that must have seemed very appealing during the heavy rationing of the day. Essentially, he wooed my mother with candy and cheese, which was apparently effective, because she agreed to marry him.
In Kentwood, a local paper ran a photo of my mother, with her glossy, brown hair and her stylish London clothes. It was notable on the home front that a local dairyman was bringing home a foreign beauty from across the ocean. Thousands of young brides from Europe and Asia streamed into America after the war ended, but in rural Louisiana this was a bit of a first.
Some of those brides arrived on these shores pregnant, and their new American husbands were no-shows. But Barney Bridges was waiting in New Orleans for his bride to fly in from New York City. He was eager to bring his Lillian home. Daddy had bragged to Mama about all the land his family owned, hundreds of acres of Louisiana soil, but as she was to discover in short order, a landowner in England is a far sight from a Southern farmer. There were no lush, manicured lawns in Tangipahoa Parrish, and there certainly was no genteel country estate. There were, however, dirt roads, snakes, and unrelenting heat.
The new Mrs. Lillian Bridges had some adjusting to do, starting immediately. Mama and Daddy drove more than an hour through dark, swampy terrain on their way home from the airport. "Where are all the lights?" she wondered out loud. A city girl to her core, Mama mourned the life she had in London, where she could walk down the street every day for fresh bread and produce. Southern cooking, on the other hand, mandates that everything-and I do mean everything-is fried within an inch of its life. She recalled with a shudder once how her in-laws would cook beans outside in a huge vat, adding chunks of lard by the slotted spoonful.
To Mama, she may as well have been a million miles from all that was comfortable and dear. She was homesick for her parents, her sister, and her country. The poor thing cried every night, and Daddy was at his wit's end trying to make her happy. Inside, she was always the fashionable London lady, yet outwardly she had to play the role of a farmer's wife, stuck in the sticks. But she made it. Mama was married, in love, and resilient, and eventually she was able to walk in step with the strange rhythms of life in her new surroundings. She even enjoyed some aspects of her rural existence, such as feeding the adorable calves. Of course, she always wore the most attractive Wellingtons-what the English call rubber boots-money could buy! Homesick or not, she was determined to make this new life work. And in 1947, she had another reason to sink her roots more deeply into American earth: my sister, Sandra, was born; followed four years later by my brother, Barry; and then, after four more years, me, the baby of the family.
Years later, when I was in high school, our family traveled to England to visit relatives there. During that trip, I met Aunt Joan and Uncle Archie Woolmore for the first time and stayed at their lovely home. I think it was also the first time that I began to grasp just what my mama was missing so dearly on the other side of the ocean.
I remember being full of admiration of the British way of life. Sitting in the Woolmore garden, having tea with my relatives, I gathered that the English valued education and travel, and they felt travel was indeed an integral part of one's education.
Some of my mother's relatives were accomplished musicians, and one great-uncle owned a book-binding company. Engraved in my mind is how quaint and beautiful the great-uncle's garden was as we had tea amid his flowers and shrubbery. Years later, I would pattern the garden of my home based on my memory of that afternoon with the charming English book binder, my mother's uncle.
Someone to Watch Over Me
When Sandra was twelve, and I was just four, I would jump on her back and we would head down to the woods and this wonderful creek that was like something out of a Mark Twain novel. Well, maybe the creek was a little smaller and less grand than the Mississippi, but in my childhood imagination it was just as magnificent.
We'd be joined by a dozen or so of our cousins, who were all more or less Sandra's age. They built rafts with hammers and nails, and I would help in my own little way. There was a huge tree with massive, gnarled limbs that bridged across the water, and we would climb all over it, back and forth. There were snakes everywhere, but Sandra kept a close eye out for them and a close watch on me. Until the day she died, Sandra was someone to watch over me.
Many of you may feel this way about your sisters, but I think that Sandra and I had a singular bond of closeness. One of my earliest memories is Sandra playing dolls with her friends; I was her living doll to dress and boss, and they had to make do with plain plastic dolls.
My big sister was so devoted she even brought me along on a number of her dates. She was a beautiful teenager with hazel eyes and a heart-melting smile, and she had her share of suitors, some of whom were none too pleased with having to share Sandra with the likes of me!
"I just want Lynne to come along with us tonight, that's all," I heard her plead in a whisper to one young man as I sat in the backseat of his car. Who knows, maybe she needed a chaperone on those nights, and I was certainly a less daunting guardian than Mama or Daddy would have been. But I truly think she just wanted me nearby, because we were two peas in a pod.
The dairy was a wonderful place to raise children. Daddy got up at 3:30 or 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows, and by 6:45 there was a big country breakfast on the table, with everyone sitting down to homemade biscuits, eggs, bacon, and cream from the top of the milk pail for coffee. There was no variation to this morning ritual.
In the summer we would run outside and build rafts for the creek and play in tree houses. There were moccasins and rattlesnakes galore, but do you think my parents ever told us to wear shoes? Huck Finn had nothing on us.
There were black widow spiders too. My Grandpa Bridges was bitten once, but I don't want to tell you where! Let's just say it's a piece of family lore that is best left to the imagination.
I loved riding horses. My favorite horse was called Wishbone, because my brother-whom we all call Sonny-wished on a turkey bone at Christmas for a horse. Sonny was just four years older than me, so he and I spent hours together, playing and riding Wishbone. After a good, hard day of play, we'd come in for supper and watch The Andy Griffith Show together.
Mama was the heartbeat of our home. It was immaculate, though we felt comfortable enough to put our feet up, so to speak. But the woman did vacuum every single day. We would tease her about her fastidiousness, because she even had a habit of clearing off the table before we were all finished eating.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I don't mean to rush you," she would say so sweetly in her British accent. "Can I get you something else?" She liked things to be pretty but orderly. Everything was in its place. When she was in housework mode, she could give the Energizer Bunny a run for his money.
My friends oohed and aahed at how she spoke and how pretty she was. Mama had thick, dark-brown hair, and she always kept it styled and lovely, no small feat for a fifties farmwife in rural Louisiana. I always wished I had picked up her elegant accent. She would laugh at me when I'd imitate her speech, and do you know she even had a ladylike laugh? My laugh is so awful it could peel paint.
One thing I did adopt from my mother was her love of books. Mama adored reading. History books, biographies, mysteries-she would check them out of the library a pile at a time. Like my mother, I often turn the pages late into the night. It helps me sleep, just as reading always soothed Mama at night too.
Daddy would rather visit with his fellow farmers than poke his nose in a book. He always wished he had a college education, but he had signed up for the army instead. All three of us kids attended college, Sandra for three years and Sonny and I for four. My brother and I both received bachelor's degrees-he in agriculture, and I in education-and in no small measure the credit goes to Daddy for gently pushing us toward college and instilling in us the value of learning.
Born Barnett Bridges, Daddy changed his name legally to Barney Oldfield Bridges, in honor of the race car driver and pioneer, Bern "Barney" Eli Oldfield, who died in 1946 and was the first man to drive a car at sixty miles per hour. In the thirties, when Daddy was coming of age, apparently there was a saying going around. If you were behind the wheel, zooming around like a speed demon, people had a comeback for you: "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"
"Daddy, do you know how silly that is?" I would tease him about appropriating his idol's name.
He would blush a little, look away, and smile. But secretly, he probably daydreamed about taking the corners at Daytona with a gleaming, souped-up Fiat or Blitzen Benz, just as his hero-namesake did.
We always had new cars, and Daddy loved to drive. He bragged about never having had a wreck and got such a kick out of telling stories about how his family-Mama, Sandra, Sonny, and me-wreaked havoc on the community by being let loose on the streets. When I play cars with my grandson Preston, who is obsessed with anything motorized, I like to think that boy got his zeal for automobiles from his great-grandfather, Barney O. Bridges.
Excerpted from THROUGH the STORM by LYNNE SPEARS LORILEE CRAKER Copyright © 2008 by Lynne Spears. Excerpted by permission.
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