"I LEFT HOME BEFORE Margaret Trudeau did," says Barbara Pryor. "I think we are fundamentally different because she is so much younger than he (Pierre Trudeau) is. They'd not gone through the same growth patterns my husband and I did for 18 years. I think that's why our story ends so happily, because we had such a solid foundation.

"Margaret Trudeau," she continues, "Isn't she involved a lot with drugs? See, she's a flower child and he's missed it."

Flower child may be one of the nicest things anyone's called Margaret Trudeau lately, but then Barbara Pryor is, plain and simply, a nice person. She, too, was suffocating from her husband's political life and she, too, left home to find herself. But she did not flee the governor's mansion to the Rolling Stones' hotel and she did not spend her two years away from home criss-crossing two continents with a portable mattress and a cache of pot.

When Barbara Pryor left her husband, they issued a one-line press release stating that they were separating, that their three sons would remain in the care of the governor and then they didn't say anything more. Not for the two years she stayed away. There was speculation but no scandal. "I didn't hop around," she says and her adventures did not become "must" reading for ladies under the hair dryers.

"There was lots of speculation. Some [news] people would follow me around when I went to class. They asked David every day at his press conference about it for a week or 10 days. But we didn't discuss it.

"It think mainly people in Arkansas were extremely understanding. I could go around to the service station and perfect strangers would say, 'we understand. Don't feel bad.' I'm not saying friends were so understanding. You know how it is. Some thought Barbara had to be right. Some thought David had to be right.

"But this great sympathy and love that came from people really surprised me. At the same time, it was reassuring. I don't think it occurred to them that there was anyone else in our lives, anything but the political life that was a problem, because we were such a team. Of course, you always get some people who are going to speculate...

"I needed rest. I didn't want to be involved with anyone except myself. I was out of balance. I needed to get back my equilibrium. I stop when I say that because I read so much about the 'Me' generation of the 70s. But that was partly it. I needed to rediscover myself. A lot of the 'Me' generation has to do with pleasure, of the 'Me' generation has to do with pleasure, but for me it had to do with survival. I knew I was losing ground. I knew what it was like to lose life."

She found out life is "over in a second" when her heart stopped during surgery in 1971. "I think I always felt time matered, but after that, it really became major."

Barbara Pryor left home, but she didn't fritter her life away. She went back to school and then, through an old friend, got involved in making movies and ended up in the mountains of Arkansas as executive producer of a movie for which she had raised $1 million. She and the crew spent nine weeks in regged terrain, living in primitive, snowy conditions, doing work that she loved.

"It seemed after I went on location, David and I were in touch all the time because of the boys. We talked every night. I would tell him what had gone wrong on the production that day. He would really encourage me. We reestablished the contact we'd lost. We became such good friends again, which is how we started.

"When I left location, it was just assumed I would come home. It was a very natural thing. Throughout all of it, he was excellent. He gave me the room I needed to expand."

Barbara and David Pryor have been back together for two years and their home life now that he is here as a senator is very different from the frenzied Washington political life they had led when he was here as a congressman. Instead of going out every night or working late, they spend their evenings and weekends at home with their sons. "Now, we have more fun," she says. "We laugh a lot.We kid ourselves. Our son leaving for college made us realize how few years we have left with our boys and we want those times to be pleasurable. It's made us hungry for their presence.

"The boys see me differently, too. My being in the film business has given me a profession they found fascinating. We've been involved in a few charity premieres down in Arkansas. It's fun for them to think I'm involved in that world."

Next year, she may go into business here. "I've done my part for charities." But she doesn't have any idea what kind of business she wants and she doesn't feel pressured to find out. 78We've learned to relax. Not to push ourselves so much. To pace ourselves."

You get the feeling that Barbara Pryor has rebuilt her life and her marriage and that she indeed has something there that she treasures, and that even in the most devastating moment of their lives, the afternoon when she told her husband she had to get out, there was a remarkably strong bond between them.

"David is one of the most gentle people I've ever known. I've never heard him raise his voice in anger. I've seen him mad, but he gets quiet rather than loud.

"We've always been conscious of each other's feelings. It's easy to do, for one thing. I like him so much and he really, truly likes me.

"I just told him I had to leave, that I was suffocating, that I couldn't breathe anymore. I think it just caught up with me one Sunday afternoon. It wasn't one thing; it was an accumulation of years. It was a tremendous shock to his system. There's always complicity. I was overtired. I probably should have mentioned it sooner if I needed rest. Even a structured rest. I led him to believe I was a super person. By the same token, he led me to believe it.

"Now, we're more human with ourselves... I learned the hard way that you need time for y;urselves, for your family. We used to go out every night, but since we've been back together we treasure our time together.

"Now, it's like being newly married. For one thing, you have this tremendous appreciation of what your relationship is. It's like a treasure. It's like starting over." She looks around the enclosed sun porch of the home they bought in November in Bethesda. "Here we are trying to keep the house. I'm learning how to cook again, to clean, to keep house. It's therapeutic.

"You know how women are. They make it eaiser on their husbands. Particularly political wives. You know how important his work is, so you protect him from the hassles of life, from the tire that's flat, the broken refrigerator. For him to turn and do the same for me, to give me the space to allow me to go ahead and do some of the things I had to do was a great act of unselfishness."

She and David Pryor were, as she puts it, a great team in politics, a great team running the weekly newspaper when they started out "thinking we could save the world." Then came the time when she crashed, exhausted and she had to get out for survival. She says it was a shock to her husband, but in the end, when she needed help, he didn't question and he didn't let her down.

"It never occurred to us that we would be apart permanently. We couldn't believe we wouldn't spent the rest of our lives together and grow old together."