Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to Your Dad

If it takes a little work, it’s okay to treat it like work

Illustration: George(s)

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

WWhen I was 13, my parents went to see a performance of the illusionist Uri Geller, who called my father up on stage and taught him how to bend spoons with his mind. According to my mom, at some point in the show, the spoon in my dad’s hand basically “folded itself in half.” She could not explain it. Suddenly my father could bend spoons with his mind.

In the coming months, my father bent spoons in my presence many times. He did it for his friends at cocktail parties and picnics. I begged him to tell me the secret. He would not. My brothers and I once witnessed the head of a teaspoon break off cleanly and clink down on the plate in front of him at Tuzz’s Pinnacle Grill on Monroe Avenue near the 490 overpass in Rochester, New York. My dad snapped a spoon in half with his mind.

I saw it.

But when I asked him how he did it, he wouldn’t tell me. He claimed he couldn’t let me in on it and cited some dopey magician’s vow of secrecy. That made me angry.

Up until then, I had pretty much worshipped the guy. He was handsome, funny, generous, well-liked. And now I was supposed to believe he had psychic powers. Once he started the spoon-bending routine, it seemed that we were on different teams. He was the star performer, and I was just another rube in the audience.

It mystified me. If he really had secret powers, then why wouldn’t I have inherited them? And if the whole thing was just some trick, why wouldn’t he teach the trick to me? I really stewed.

And I eventually stopped asking.

And soon after, I stopped asking him about anything.

Now I’m a dad myself. I just hung up after speaking to my 29-year-old son, August. I told him what I was about to write here: a short essay on talking to your father.

My son is a chef and was working at the loud end of some kitchen. I could hear baskets of silverware rattling. “Is it hard for you to speak to me as your dad?” I asked him.

He actually took a deep breath. Oh, boy, I thought. He stepped outside. “Well, I’ve learned to prepare myself,” he said.

“That bad, eh?”

“No, no,” he said. “I always take a moment before I call. I just want to have my head clear. And that’s why I always call you while I’m walking the dog. I like to be by myself. I like a little quiet. I need to focus.”

The good tips start piling up right there. Step away from distraction. Take a moment to focus. I told him I wanted to write about a particular lunch I had had with my own father, 25 years ago, when my son was just a boy. “You were there,” I told him. “He tried to show you how to bend spoons.”

Decades passed. Uri Geller was famously debunked. And my family ultimately forgot about the spoon-bending.

I expected that someday I would simply become my dad, the life of the party, the center of attention, the one with the answers.

I expected things to be as easy for me as they seemed to be for him. My own anger made me distant and suspicious. My resentment gave me that sense that I had no clue how to talk to him. But he was the same guy, the same Dad. I was the one who was changing. It scared me, I think. And I assumed it was my father who scared me.

It took a long time, but I taught myself how to speak to my dad again. It was after I became a father myself. First I had to learn to see him as a stand-alone adult, rather than as simply my father. Next, I learned to let go of emotions I brought along with me from childhood. I stopped trying to figure out what he had to answer for. I realized that I knew less about him than he did me.

If you don’t have questions for your father, if you think you’ve asked them all by now, consider how much of your life is not obvious to those around you. Think about it. He damned sure doesn’t know all your secrets. The same is true for you. Explore how much of his life was lived before you, after you left, away from you, and for you.

I guarantee you: There is a lot to learn about your father. If you have nothing more to wonder about in your father, then I have to wonder about you.

I approached my dad like I approach any work I do: as a journalist. With questions. Every conversation with him became a chance to learn who he was, rather than an opportunity to prove myself.

Twenty-five years after the spoon-bending, when I was a young father, I took August, then five, to lunch with my dad at a restaurant he ran. My dad had a terrible cold. He wanted soup. And he wanted to talk to his son and grandson.

When he sat down across the table that morning, he looked truly terrible — rheumy eyes, runny nose, rattling chest. His shoulders were covered in dandruff. I don’t know what I said first, but I’m sure it was a question.

People always ask their fathers about the past, about their childhood, to fill in some details of some long-lost decade. And sometimes that stuff is necessary, but these are softballs and a subtle means of assigning him to the realm of the past, the essential microaggression of the young — the assertion of oncoming irrelevance. As a father now, I can say I’m due more than that. My father sure was.

I’d learned to avoid our mutual past. I didn’t hit sore spots between us with my questions, didn’t look to make points or settle old arguments.

Questions are a sign of respect. They’re a serious nod to the expertise, authority, and memory of the elder. But don’t ask questions when you have something to prove. A father can always see that coming. There’s honor in revealing yourself through genuine curiosity.

Eventually, we ate. My father probably had escarole and beans. That’s all he ate for a while. My son? Probably a grilled cheese. That’s all he ate for a while too.

At some point during that lunch, I looked at my dad and asked, “Can you still bend the spoons?”

My dad narrowed his bloodshot eyes and sniffed.

“Remember? Uri Geller?”

He nodded, then shrugged.

“That was pretty cool,” I said. “How did you do that? Was it a trick?

My dad took a long look at me, as if weighing the matter and considering whether he should even go back there. We were quiet for a while.

“I think that must have been bullshit,” he said. I laughed. Then we both did.

He looked at me then and waved the soup spoon. “You know, I always told you, and you never believed me,” he said, “that I never knew how the spoon-bending worked.”

“Come on,” I said.

“No, really. After a while, I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “Everyone forgets, you know?”

He ate some soup, tilted his head, considering the distance. I could see him then, see who he’d always been. Just a guy trying to figure things out as he went along in life. A stand-alone adult. Like me. “Eventually, you and your brothers stopped asking me to bend spoons. Frankly, it was a relief.”

August looked up. “Papa used to bend spoons with his mind,” I said.

“Was it a trick?” August asked. I looked straight at my boy, without a glance at my dad. I told him my end of it. I saw it with my own two eyes.

Then my father gave it another try.

On the call, August remembered the lunch, and the spoons. “So, are you writing about the spoons?” he said. No, I told him. I’d never figured that out. This was about talking to my dad.

“Good,” August said. “Because all you guys did at that lunch was talk. Man, he loved to talk to you.”

Then I took the deep breath. I love that kid. He really knows what to say to his old man.

Tom Chiarella: 5 books, most recently: Becoming A Life Coach. Written for Esquire, Popular Mechanics, Golf, Outside, Runner’s World, O: the Oprah Magazine, Elle

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