When Diana Markosian was 7 years old, her mother left her father and took Markosian and her brother from their home in Moscow to start a new life in California. “We hardly ever spoke of my father,” Markosian says. “I had no pictures of him, and over time forgot what he looked like.” Fifteen years later Markosian traveled back to Armenia — where the family had briefly lived and where her father had settled — to reconnect with the man with whom she’d had no contact for so long. Over the past two years, Markosian and her father have been learning to know one another again, taking photographs together and rebuilding their relationship. To mark Father’s Day, TIME presents pictures from their poignant collaboration and Markosian’s account, in her own words, of how it came about.
The picture in my mind didn’t match the man in front of me. My father was someone I had created to make up for what I missed.
I have few childhood memories of him.
In one, we are dancing together in our tiny apartment in Moscow. In another, he is leaving. My father would disappear for months at a time. Then, unexpectedly, he would come home.
What he didn’t expect was what happened next.
At seven years old, I was taken away from him, far away. It was October 1996. The Soviet Union had long collapsed, and by then so had my family. We had become desperate overnight: avoiding landlords and collecting bottles in exchange for food. One morning, my mom woke me and my brother to say we were going on a trip.
We never said goodbye to my father. The next day, we arrived in our new home in southern California. We had spent years watching the American soap opera, Santa Barbara. And now we were there.
For my mom, the solution to forget him was simple. She cut his image out of every photograph in our family album. But those holes made it harder for me to forget him. I would stare at airplanes flying over in the blue Californian sky, waiting for him to come and find me.
He never did.
I had no real memories of him, just basic details my mom reluctantly shared. That he was a writer and liked to read Nabokov. That he would have wanted me to become a dancer. My mom took me to my first ballet class when I was 8. I trained until I was 16. I wanted him to see me perform. I wanted him to be proud of me.
But my mom told me I would be disappointed in him. I never believed her.
It took me 15 years to be standing where I am. Outside the courtyard of the same gray, decaying Soviet building I remember as a child in Armenia. He shows me into his house. He has changed almost nothing inside. He has not added any furniture; he has not removed any furniture. The walls are covered with my grandfather’s oil paintings and family pictures — even my brother’s childhood toys are there, stored in an attic closet. It is familiar at first, even reassuring. He shows me photos of us together, tells me about the time we got lost in the woods. He plays audio recordings he made in my childhood.
In one, he asks me if I know what divorce is.
“Yes,” my 7-year-old voice says, confidently.
“Is divorce a good thing?” he asks.
I cry and tell him I don’t know.
“Do you want your mom and dad to get divorced?”
I cry harder.
“How many times do you want me to repeat myself?” I ask. “No, I don’t.”
Hearing this I am brought back to arguments he used to have with my mom. That’s what I remember the most. But when he shows me pictures of them together, I see something else. A family.
But that was the past. For so long I was determined to have a father, so I had invented one out of a man I thought existed. But the man standing across from me didn’t recognize me. I didn’t recognize him, either. I felt out of place. A part of me still wanted to get to know him. There had been a life before he had me, before he met my mother.
I moved in with him six months later. We would often spend the morning together, running. It was our way of being together without the past intruding. My father would move beside me, his arms and legs strong from years of weight lifting. He would try to pour a lifetime into each outing. He would share with me the revelations he experienced, emotions he had felt and things he had written about. It took time, but as our feet pounded the sidewalk, I learned so much about this distant man.
There were other moments, as well — times outside of our runs. The night he shared his poetry with me. The evening at the symphony when he snuck in chocolates for us. We ate them in the dark.
But then, all at once, he was not there, as if those moments had never even existed.
He wasn’t the only one who was distant. I often didn’t know how to behave around my father. Sometimes he would watch me brush my hair or reach to embrace me. When he did, I would pull away. I still don’t know what he is to me or what I am to him.
I keep looking for him. I think I always will.
Diana Markosian is a photographer based in Chechnya. Inventing My Father will be exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland in January 2015. See more of her work here.