I’m reading Melissa Gilbert’s midlife memoir, “Back To The Prairie,” to my niece. We are sitting on the couch in the living room in my house on the river, and Gilbert’s tale sends me back to my first year in Narrowsburg.
I’m reading Melissa Gilbert’s midlife memoir, “Back To The Prairie,” to my niece. We are sitting on the couch in the living room in my house on the river, and Gilbert’s tale sends me back to my first year in Narrowsburg. Reading aloud is an activity rarely indulged in these times of personal media worlds-in-our-hands. But it is worth doing. There is an intimacy to it that reading alone does not approach. And Gilbert’s writing is full of good dialogue.
As a natural actor, I enjoy intoning Gilbert’s world. I surprise myself and Sarah with shrieks at the scene of a mattress-full of baby mice she encountered while cleaning out her country house with husband Tim Busfield in Barryville. We are dealing with our own rodent issues these days, with squirrels who love to raid the vegetable garden and take serious chomps out of heirloom tomatoes, while snacking on ground cherries, leaving only their paper husks behind.
Sarah was thrilled to learn that Gilbert lives in our area. She remembers her character from “Little House on the Prairie,” the ’70s TV series. So when Gilbert read from her new memoir at the Deep Water Literary Festival in June, I made sure to buy a copy and get it autographed for Sarah, who lives across the country in Seattle, but visits us for 10 days every summer. Sarah told me her favorite episode of the series was “The Lord is My Shepherd.” I was at the end of a long line at the book-signing when I mentioned that to Gilbert, who was tired from her busy day, but she looked up at me to say, “It was mine, too.”
Our paths align in that we were both city-dwellers who chose to live in this once-forgotten part of the Catskills. We both loved the city, and loved to leave it. Both of us are actors and writers—she has a larger stage. The description of her introduction to her husband Tim and their subsequent marriage is also familiar to me. My husband Jim and I seem to share the same soulmate status with each other that Melissa and Tim do.
As for making a house your own that someone else once lived in: Melissa and Tim did everything themselves that didn’t require a license. We were more fortunate in that our “little house” only needed aesthetic improvements. The pink carpeting had to go, with hardwood to replace it. We exchanged burgundy wallpaper for pale green paint in the dining room. Extensive window treatments were given up entirely in return for wide-open views of the river and trees. A hedge that looked like it would be happier in a suburb was exhumed and exchanged with oakleaf and peegee hydrangea, rose of Sharon and various perennials. Although we could have moved in full time the day we closed, it took us 20 years to do that.
When the third 100-year flood in a decade came around, the kind of extensive renovation Gilbert faced on day one faced us. The river tore through 100 feet of rail fence and hemlock trees. It roared through our basement and den, laying waste to two La-Z-Boy recliners and a surround-sound TV set-up. But we survived. And I got the popcorn ceiling I always detested removed in the process.
Sarah remembers the “little house” that Melissa’s character lived in on TV. Maybe hearing about her real-life little house in Barryville helps her see how a house is made a home. The same way we made ours.
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