It would be easy, of course, to say that Melissa Gilbert has returned to the prairie.
After all, she named the lifestyle site for older women she co-founded a year and a half ago, Modern Prairie. And while its roots are in community, it’s a long way from Half Pint and “Little House on the Prairie.”
And that’s OK with her.
Today Gilbert is 59. She is most interested in talking about aging, or rather, celebrating aging, and sharing stories about her grandchildren (eight of them!) and connecting women through Modern Prairie’s new app on everything from living with grief to building a beautiful charcuterie board.
“As maturing women we’re all going through a lot of the same things. Massive changes, not just physical like menopause, perimenopause, postmenopause. But we’re empty nesters. We’re losing our parents, we’re losing our jobs, our spouses. We’re getting divorced,” she says. “We have these transitions that require us to grieve, push through and persevere.”
As many women do, she reached a point in her life when her children were older, her career felt settled, and she wondered: Is this all there is?
“What was my life going to be?” she asked herself. “I need to do what’s better for me than what I had done until then.”
From 'Half Pint' to menopause
Gilbert spent much of her life trying to keep up. The little girl who grew up playing Laura Ingalls Wilder from 9 to 18, continued in front of the camera with TV shows and movies, and with her dating life that included Billy Idol and Rob Lowe.
Throughout her career, she had been told to lose weight, to cover her freckles, to pad her bra. She had breast implants and her nose shaped; she had Botox and fillers. “It just kept creeping up, you start doing them and then you need a little more and then a little more.”
Just over 10 years ago, she competed in “Dancing with the Stars,” and while she was proud of how hard she worked and how good she looked, there was something about her appearance.
“Frankly, I looked like every woman over 40 in Los Angeles. We all have the same cheeks, the same brows, the same lips. So, my face looked great, only it wasn’t my face,” she says, laughing, lines forming around her eyes.
It was a moment, building on recent life changes of a divorce and health issues stemming from a broken back, which helped her think about where she wanted to be in life. It shaped who she is today.
“Trying to stay thin while aging is really hard. Your metabolism changes. I was fighting this uphill battle, and it was just exhausting,” she says.
She didn’t want her accomplishments, or her identity, to simply be linked to her physical appearance. She wondered: Is this how I want to spend the last third of my life?
She no longer wanted to go to the gym for two hours every day to try to lose weight, to spend time coloring her hair, to try to be someone she no longer felt like she was.
“It took me out of the space of being the person I am. It forced me into being something that other people wanted me to be, which I spent a lot of my life doing,” she says. “I just wanted to find a way to be in a place to embrace myself and my life and not wish I was something else anymore.”
What is Melissa Gilbert doing now?
Slowly her life changed.
She stopped getting Botox and fillers. She let her hair go gray. She had her breast implants removed.
“These things were a life changer,” she says. “It meant I could explore all of the things in my life I hadn’t done before.”
It felt like freedom.
Today Gilbert is in her rental house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while her husband of 10 years, Timothy Busfield (Of “Thirtysomething and “West Wing” fame), works as directing producer on “The Cleaning Lady” being filmed in New Mexico. It is one of the longest spates they’ve been away from their home in upstate New York.
She is just back from a barre class, where she jokes that “I’m almost 60, and very much aware of it. I have the aches and pains. I was the slowest and least stretchy one in the room today. Everyone was younger than me. But it didn’t matter.”
Her 4-month-old puppy, Sundance, a black and white Australian Shepherd, is on her lap. She is wearing a white T-shirt and striped dress over it, with a gold necklace that says "nana" in cursive, talking about Modern Prairie, and how it is “about time there is something for older women.”
Modern Prairie is all about a place where older women can connect. That was the goal when she and her now-friend Nicole Haase created the site in the spring of 2022. Haase, a former executive with Williams Sonoma and other big companies, is Modern Prairie's CEO.
That includes Gilbert’s blog where she shares her favorite holiday traditions and encourages women to not make themselves invisible and be in photos even if they aren’t wearing makeup, and Zoom classes such as holiday tree lighting with Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder for "Little House" fans and known as “Mr. Christmas” to Gilbert) to Finding your Word of the Year.
There also are products, all made by women and from women-owned companies – from flowing dresses that feel like a cross between a J. Jill that bumped into the calico in the Oleson’s Mercantile, to housewares such as a salt holder that also can be an herb container. Most items are created with the idea that they are versatile and can mix with what you own.
The one thing you’ll never see is anti-aging.
“It makes me crazy to say ‘anti-aging,’ because that would mean dead. You know, we’re all aging from the moment we’re born, and you can stay healthy, stay hydrated and do good things for the body, but fighting something that’s inevitable is a losing battle,” she says.
She pauses, briefly, to grab a FedEx package at her door.
It’s not from her line but from Alice + Olivia. So, let’s acknowledge while Gilbert is embracing her age, there is a difference between that and not caring.
She works out, she eats healthfully.
“The freedom that comes with I’m not giving a damn anymore,” she says. “I mean, I care what I look like. I love jewelry and I put on lipstick, and I do my hair. I love to wear nice things, but it’s enhancing what I have, not changing it for someone else.”
'Little House' to turn 50, Modern Prairie celebrates
As you scroll through the Modern Prairie site, you see Gilbert in a white poplin Antoinette sleep dress, which looks suspiciously like the sleeping gown Ma wore on the show, you see her relaxing in the artist block maxi dress, arranging flowers in a floral apron.
“I actually don’t have that,” she says, laughing. “People sometimes think I have everything from the site. I don’t get a box of everything – and not all of it matches my own style.”
It can be difficult to separate Gilbert from the character she played who defined the lives of so many women her age. She hasn’t spent years running from it, but she didn’t exactly embrace it.
With the 50th anniversary of the “Little House” TV show approaching next year, Gilbert and Modern Prairie may be leaning into it a little. She said there will be textiles and kitchen items with an “emotional link.”
“You might keep an eye out for a bonnet,” she teases.
None of the items feel gimmicky but rather inspired by a simple time, embraced by more today who want that feeling. The site just introduced children’s dresses in “quarter-pint” sizes that match those Gilbert models. They are modeled and named after her four granddaughters: Lulabelle, Rosemary, Ripley and Ruby.
Lulabelle, who is 9, the same age Gilbert was when the TV pilot of “Little House” was released, recently asked to watch the show for the first time.
Gilbert and Lulabelle were at Gilbert’s mom’s LA home, and after the first show, the girl asked if they could watch more.
“Oh, are you kidding me? Whose house are you in? My mom’s. We have years of shows here,” Gilbert says.
The two watched a few more episodes and Gilbert’s granddaughter looked at her and said, “Granny Mel, will you put my hair in braids?”
Gilbert sat on the couch braiding Lulabelle’s hair and her mother walked into the room.
“Wait a minute, there you are, and there she is,” Gilbert said. “She just started sobbing.”
Gilbert acknowledges her mom has a special connection, but she knows "Little House" devotion runs deep. She hopes to take this generation of women who grew up with her and meet them where they are now.
“As aging women, we’ve been pigeonholed into two spaces, like the nasty old crone, or the sweet sort of ineffectual old lady that you can shove in a corner and feed a cookie and tea to,” she said. “But we are so much more. We are these vibrant, brilliant women.”
She finds it is a time when she finds stillness in her life. Now, she says, this attitude makes her feel younger.
“Now that I’m aging, I feel like a kid in so many ways,” she says. “I can be curious. I can learn new things. I can go new places.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Melissa Gilbert today: On aging, Little House on the Prairie memories