“I’m a grandmother multiple times over, and I absolutely adore it,” says Melissa Gilbert, whom you probably know best as spunky, pigtailed Laura Ingalls from the classic series Little House on the Prairie. With similar pluck, the 57-year-old actress is embracing her life today. “I am more comfortable in my own skin,” says Melissa, whose auburn locks are showing streaks of gray. “Yeah, I wake up in the morning and my ankles are a little bit stiff and there are parts of my body that are lower than they used to be, but I’m still here. I’m still me, I’m still vital.”
Adding to Melissa’s vitality is her happy marriage to actor-director Tim Busfield, 64, and all the fresh air they’ve been getting since they struck out for a new frontier: rural upstate New York. “We bought this ramshackle hunting cabin,” she says, “and I started going crazy: Let’s have chickens, let’s have cows, let’s have a horse!” Melissa recounts their adventure in her new book, Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered.
Though Melissa enjoyed her time on Little House, the ensuing fame was difficult for her to handle and she found herself struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse and two divorces. “I have done some things that I’m not too proud [of],” she admits. But these days, with her successful eight-year marriage, two grown children and her grandkids, she couldn’t be happier. “I’m a little kinder to myself,” Melissa says. “Part of that is giving myself permission to just be. I spent so much of my life pushing and being ambitious that being still now is an even greater gift.”
Slowing down changed her world dramatically. “We became DIY farmers,” she says, noting it’s “physically and emotionally fulfilling.” The biggest plus is her “extraordinary partnership” with Tim, whom she met randomly at a bar. “I saw her smile and I was gone,” Tim’s recalled. He’s someone who “continues to lift me up and challenge me, and he makes me laugh every day,” Melissa marvels, calling him “my safe place.”
They tackled the new cabin together — and it proved extra challenging, despite Melissa’s experience on Little House. “My whole life was on the prairie,” she says, but she still had to “learn how to build a fire. And we had to keep it going because we got into the house initially in the winter and we had no heat!”
The pandemic got them thinking about how they could better contribute and become more self-sufficient. During a time when, she says, “a lot of people were watching Little House for comfort,” Melissa and Tim were living it, raising chickens in a coop they built. “I thought I had the brownest thumb,” Melissa says. “But I planted this garden, and it miraculously grew. We had all these wonderful vegetables!”
Living in their cabin — that now has heat and plumbing — with an RV where family can stay when visiting, Melissa really has found her safe place. And she remains grateful for her early years on the TV prairie. “I aspire to be courageous in everything I do, and a lot of that is like Laura,” she says. “My time on Little House really influenced my desire to have this life that I have.”
—Lisa Chambers, with reporting by Fortune Benatar
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