(This is a reposted and edited version of Growing Up Boomer’s initial post from 2018)
“The Way We Were” was the number one recording in America in 1974, and it won the Academy Award for best original song in that same year. Alan and Marilyn Bergman, now in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, wrote the lyrics—the words are the result of their combined genius—but it is Barbara Streisand’s interpretation that is seared into the brains of most upwardly mobile Boomers who saw the film, perhaps especially the brains of women and gay men (and some straight men like me) who combine the opening strains of the song with uniformed Robert Redford’s iconic image as he sits upright but asleep against a Manhattan bar.
Generation Xers were nine or ten at the time, and given the adult and political themes of the movie, I doubt they saw the movie, but even if they heard the song on the radio or saw it performed on TV, I doubt someone with all of ten years under their belt would have appreciated the import of these lyrics:
Memories light the corners of my mind, misty water-colored memories of the way we were: scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind, smiles we gave to one another for the way we were. Can it be that it was all so simple then or has time rewritten every line? If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we? Could we? Memories may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget. So, it’s the laughter we will remember whenever we remember the way we were.
The first Millennials were a half dozen years from birth in 1974, and unless they stumbled across the movie The Way We Were, or were forced by their parents to watch it when the movie made its way to cable TV—parents likely inspired by an attack of nostalgia—I think members of the now biggest generation cannot begin to relate to the loss of innocence portrayed by the movie.
I guess where I’m going with this is that we Boomers own this one. We were little kids during McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, but the evolving TV news media in the Sixties—and our evolving attraction to rebellion inspired by a bizarre amalgamation of rock-n-roll irreverence and a Camelot-induced sense of social responsibility—insured that we were ready for Sydney Pollack’s interpretation of the lives of remarkable but not atypical twenty/thirty-somethings who had survived college, had lived through one of the darkest periods of American history, and were coming to grips with the challenges of making a go of the rest of their lives.
We Boomers were twenty/thirty-somethings ourselves when the movie came out, and I know I identified with Katie, Hubbell, JJ, Carol Ann and the rest because, even though they were of an earlier generation, they were dealing with many of the same issues that we were dealing with, issues about finding our way in a world that was not interested in the idealism that filled our college years. After all, hadn’t we Boomers just endured a hated war and a hated President, both of which offered evidence that American ideals were not a certain reality? We had already discovered that Americans were a flawed people, and that what had seemed unquestioned promise as undergrads was beginning to be revealed as a thin veneer covering unexpected and substantial betrayal. Little has changed. In fact, our post “The Way We Were” years have provided forty-five years of confirmation for many of us.
That’s not to say those years have been unhappy ones for everyone. Happiness is something you can study and read about. It has substance. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. But when each of us thinks of happiness, don’t we think of it as something we feel, perhaps a specific moment of euphoria associated with some specific occurrence, or perhaps a pervasive peacefulness that settles over someone when he sits in a comfy chair next to a fire, drinks a robust cup of black coffee, and stares out through a wall of windows at lawn and gardens and a tree-covered ridge a half mile away?
I don’t know that memories in general elicit happiness. I suppose they can recall specific moments of happiness that will make us feel happy during the recollection. They can provide insight, certainly, if we take the time to interpret them in ways that may alleviate depression (a therapist becomes a helpful addition to that process), which increases the likelihood of our being receptive to feeling happy. Unfortunately, many memories bring the opposite of happiness. A dose of melancholy can accompany them, and melancholia implies a sense of sadness and depression; certainly, not happiness. I suppose that is one reason why the lyrics above resonate with me. They have found a middle ground between happiness and melancholia that seems more apt in describing how I feel about memories.
Memories do “light the corners of my mind,” but the “misty water-colored memories” are just that, impressionistic interpretations that do not reflect the specifics of actual events. Said another way, while there may be some key accuracies, our memories may only convey the gist of what actually transpired. “Or has time rewritten every line?” is a question that psychologists still have not definitively answered. The Bergman’s conclusion that “What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget” may have a certain element of truth to it, although the choosing may be more a function of our subconscious than a conscious willingness to forget. I suggest that if we are aware of an unpleasant memory, that’s a memory that will oppose every attempt on our part to “simply choose to forget” it.
Still, the not-quite-melancholic lyrics as interpreted by Streisand still give me pause despite my intellectual belief that the Buddha was on to something when he espoused (my words and my interpretation, obviously) living in the moment. You know, don’t worry about the future, don’t obsess about the past, but Mother Culture offers a contrary narrative, doesn’t she? We can learn from history, of course, because what is a memory, but a recounting of things gone by, and we consider our memories in order to make constructive plans for our future. But don’t many of us blunder on in the face of our remembered experiences and make the same mistakes over and over?
As I contemplate recording memories about growing up Boomer, both for the fun of it and as a way to exercise my mind with the hope of pushing the specter of dementia further into the future, I have been thinking of focusing on “the laughter (I) will remember,” that symbolic representation of happiness, but I think there might be some “misty water-colored memories” as well.
Every time I read the word “memories,” and each time you do, whether in something I’ve written or somewhere else, I encourage you to hear the word as Barbara sang it, not “mem-or-ies” but “Memmm-ries,” for it may help you, as it does for me, touch that part of me that remembers “Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind, smiles we gave to one another for the way we were.”
Or will I find that time may have rewritten every line?
 as an example: The Role of Sleep in False Memory Formation by J. D. Payne et al, 2009, in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. (Read via the PMC, an NIH, US National Library of Medicine database)