BARBARA PRYOR opens her own door these days. She is wearing a navy blue pantsuit over a ruby red print blouse, a light lipstick, her short hair fluffed softly around her face.She is 40 years old now, of medium height, slightly plump, with a quick smile and an engaging laugh. She is a congenial woman, very likable, who talks in her soft Southern voice as easily about politics, Washington and producing movies as she does about children, schools and housing costs.

She is a woman who seems to be enviably at peace with her life and it is hard to believe that this relaxed Bethesda housewife is the frazzled political wife who ran away from the Arkansas governor's mansion in 1975, leaving her three sons in the care of her husband the governor, and setting Little Rock on its thoroughly Southern ear.

She stayed away two years, going back to school, working in movies, and producing a feature length film, "Wishbone Cutter" -- an adventure story, "really kind of a witchcraft western" -- that's been shown in 18 states. David and Barbara Pryor have been back together for two years and they have just moved from the governor's mansion to Washington following his election to the U.S. Senate.

There are no cooks, gardeners, maids, butlers or drivers for Barbara Pryor these days, but then again, there aren't any of the teas, luncheons, state dinners and constant rounds of campaigns and entertaining that drove her out of the governor's life and into her own.

"When I was first lady of Arkansas, it seems the more I did, and the better I got at my job, the less I saw David. Even though the jobs were similar, the duties are so diverse we literally never saw each other. Politics," she says diplomatically, "was not my chosen vocation. I didn't want it to consume my life, and it seemed to consume all my energy."

Barbara Pryor was 19 years old, a freshman at the University of Arkansas, when she married David Pryor, a graduating senior "who was presiand ran a weekly newspaper and then he entered politics and law school and she got on a merry-go-round that she didn't get off for the next 18 years. He was in the state legislature for six years and then was elected to Congress in 1966, the first of three terms.

In Washington, she did all the things political wives did in those days: she was into charities and congressional wives activities and even though she had three young sons to care for, she showed constituents around town and she entertained and was entertaining.

"Politics is so public. It's a constant assault on your inner life," she says. 'It's better now because political wives are allowed to have their own feelings. We've taken that. In the beginning, I felt compelled to be perfect. Always smiling, always pleasant, always willing to do whatever had to be done."

She pushed herself too hard. In 1971, she was hospitalized for an emergency hysterectomy and during the operation she suffered a coronary embolism and her heart stopped. She was up three months later -- "against everybody's advice" -- campaigning for her husband in his unsuccessful Senate race against John McClellan. "I was still an invalid. My husband had never lost. Not since the third grade. He was so wounded. There's no way to describe how it feels to work so hard and come so close."

They moved back to Arkansas from their home in Arlington and bought a big house and by the time they had transformed it into what Barbara Pryor calls "the perfect house" her husband had been elected governor. They moved again and by this time, she says, she was exhausted. The surgery, the moves, the campaigns had consumed her, but she didn't realize how fully. She tried to supervise a staff of 26 at the mansion and she tried to fulfill all the state and political functions of governor's wives and one Sunday afternoon she came home and met her husband and told him she'd had it. "I couldn't take it another day. Not another minute." She left that night.

"He understood, which was good. At first he was shocked, because I'd never questioned him and I'd never let him down. But after he understood, we spoke to the boys and he told them, 'It's her turn.' We talked to them separately until they understood.

"Our older boy understood perfectly. He was 16 and a great person.He doesn't have any affinity for politics. He could understand the suffocation involved. The younger two, they mainly registered that I was leaving. One was 13 and Scott was 10. They didn't want their mother to leave.

"But David filled that void. He'd never had to be a father before. I had always been responsible. He got to know his sons. He had to. Even now he thinks it's the greatest thing that happened, not that we separated, but because he got to know his sons. He was the one who got them up in the morning and got them off to school and bought them tennis shoes.

"We lived in the mansion, which was the ideal time to leave because we had the servants to do the cooking, the gardening, the cleaning, all the driving.

"We had a house on a lake in Hot Springs and I went over there and stayed there two months and rested." Then she enrolled in the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. "It was just an awesome experience. I was just cowed. For one thing, I was older than a lot of my professors. I took English literature, took a course on film, a course in journalism and typing. Very practical. I decided I would prepare myself to go to work."

But she couldn't.She tried to get a job in the summer of 1976 but no one would hire her. "I was separated from my husband and no one knew what the story was. He was the governor and no one would give me a job, even as a department store clerk."

One day while visiting her children in the mansion, she ran into Charles Pierce, a movie producer who once worked on the Pryor's newspaper. "He said we'd given him a job when he was down and out and he would help me. See, it all comes back." She started to work cleaning his office and worked her way up to supervising the script of a movie he filmed in Texas.

"At the end of the film the crew was sitting around one night. We wanted to stay together but the next film Charlie was doing was six months away. They had the script, the location and the crew but they needed the money. I said I think I can raise some money. They said okay. They were just being nice."

She ended up raising $1 million dollars and being the executive producer of a low-budget movie, "Wishbone Cutter," for which she got 12 investors. "I sold it on my own merit. My husband and I were still separated."

Then in the fall of 1976 she and the film crew went into the mountains of Arkansas and lived and worked by the Buffalo River, one of the few wild free-flowing rivers that remains. For nine weeks, they lived in primitive conditions, cutting trails into the river, sometimes traveling half a day to find the location. They filmed the leaves of fall and stayed on into the winter, filming and working in the bitter wind and snow. There, Barbara Pryor found herself and in the process she found her way home.

More about that on Wednesday.