06/15/2013 08:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Reel Dad

My father loved movies.

The tiny apartment he shared with my mom was inundated with more than 1,000 movies on tape and DVD, films he'd carefully catalogued and conscientiously cross-referenced by title, director and actor. I watched a lot of those movies with him over the years, especially his favorites like Young at Heart, Dave, The American President, Shane and Casablanca.


Until cancer got the better of him four years ago, my dad's evening ritual was a good meal with my mom, a glass of wine, and a movie, the two of them cuddled together on the couch like a couple of dreamy teenagers.

Back then, I'd always call the next day and ask him what movie they'd watched the previous evening. My dad would pause for a minute, let out a laugh, and then call out to my mom: "Toots, what did we watch last night?"

Eventually, it was more than my dad's memory that failed him. When his body was reeling from disease, I urged him to draw strength from Rocky or It's a Wonderful Life or Brian's Song. He couldn't.

And on May 12, 2009, he lost his battle against prostate cancer.

And now, without him here to pick out a movie for this Father's Day, I'm not really sure what I should watch.

So, I decided to return to his detailed Filmography for inspiration, believing I'd find few, if any, movies that could speak to me and my misery about my dad's being gone for another Father's Day.

I was wrong.

There was literally a flood of films that resonated with me, including many that forced me to choke back tears. Movies like All My Sons, Frequency, A River Runs Through It, The Barbarian Invasions, The Great Santini, I Never Sang for my Father, Life as a House and more brought a surge of memories and video clips that brought on other scenes, "real" ones from my days with my father.

I know in my heart that there is much more than movies that connect me and my dad, our shared experiences as veterans of different wars among them. But it has taken me more than 60 years to understand why he so loved to watch these films - how they, and his nearly seven decades of companionship with my mother, were the true magic in his life, how for two hours every night he'd wrap himself in one of these movies, an experience that for him was liberating and transforming and transporting.

Movies were an escape for my father. They showed him that there were other lives to be lived and different places to visit and special moments to cherish, even if they only existed on celluloid. Still, they represent the threads of his life as real as any experience he personally lived.

The truth is that my dad didn't have it so good - an abusive, alcoholic father; an unhappy, suffocating mother; the Depression; World War II and, by my count, 26 different jobs, none of which ever seemed to make him happy or fulfilled.

But he had my mother, and he had me and my brother. Six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

And he had his movies.

When my dad and I began the journey to our final goodbye in 2009, I promised him that I'd not only become the caretaker of his beloved movies, but that I'd be sure to watch every last one of them.

"You'll probably want to start with Pinocchio," he directed me, "since that's the first movie I recall ever taking you to see. "Then move on to Old Yeller . . . "

Eventually, I got around to Field Of Dreams, my dad and I both supposing, and hoping, that we'd be united again some day, playing catch, smiling, becoming larger than life on the big screen itself . . .