Jill Jackson’s adoption story: Massoumeh

(originally posted May 13, 2012, Mother’s Day.  Re-posting as a tribute to Paul Felton’s life and legacy.  May he sing, laugh and enjoy wine and fresh bread in the presence of our sweet Lord forever! Hold us a spot at the table Paul!)

When you step up to a roller coaster you have a pretty good idea of the chaos you are throwing yourself into.  You brace yourself knowing the meticulous safety checks have guaranteed thousands of other successful rides before you.  Every precaution is in place to ensure you’ll feel the potent combination of exhilarated and scared to death all in about one minute.

The adoption process in Iran 38 years ago for the Felton family offered the same plummet into gut wrenching depths and rocketing to joy filled heights they never could have imagined.  The difference was their journey went on for months with no guarantees they would be triumphant in the end.  That’s where their steadfast faith entered the scene to shore them up in the face of insurmountable odds.

Sustaining the will to endure that tumultuous ride, for months and months, takes a Herculean feat of endurance.   When all that’s within you cries out for mercy from the mess you are neck deep in, that’s where your sustaining faith steps in to consume the tears and offer hope.  I am about to trace for you the path to rescue of one little baby girl, who should have died 38 years ago.

This blog will be different from my typical ones, in a delightful way.  Today I am equal parts photographer and historian.  I am giving voice to a legacy of hope marked by the tenacity of two parents who refused to give up.  They defied the circumstances that would have caused most to quit.

Jill commissioned a portrait session to give voice to her adoption story and create a legacy for her own children.  We have collaborated to create what is certainly some of the proudest pieces in my photographic career.  Through this blog I will relay the Feltons’ adoption journey from conversations with the family and from excerpts from letters sent home chronicling their journey 38 years ago.

Jill being one of my dearest friends, I suggested we express her love of style and design as a medium to tell her story.   I wanted her uniqueness and creative talent to be showcased in this session.   This set her Vogue-style fine art session into motion!  I didn’t just want to produce beautiful portraits from this session—I also wanted fine art pieces that were timeless storytellers for her family.

So sit back, grab a cup of coffee and prepare to step into a story of one family’s journey that could be made into a screenplay!

Paul and Eleanor Felton found themselves living in Iran in the early 1970’s for Paul’s job at Westinghouse.  They had two sons, Trey and Scott, and decided they would like to adopt a baby girl.  The craziness two little boys can kick up often makes a mother yearn for the quiet gentleness of a little girl.  So begins the journey.

Being Christians in a Muslim world, Paul and Eleanor knew their decision to adopt would be faced with challenges.  Muslims viewed the Christians as dirty and did not like to consider them as adoptive parents for Iranian children. Fortunately, a local Protestant minister in great standing in the community came to their assistance.

The Feltons visited the local orphanage in Tehran.   Eleanor proudly pointed out it was Paul who picked out their baby girl.  They began the paperwork to start the adoption; meanwhile Eleanor visited the baby that was to be theirs every day for two weeks.

Eleanor wrote home, “Fatia is such a beautiful baby, when I hold her it is just like a little angel in my arms.  She is very small for her age, only 13 lbs. and she is 8 or 9 months old.  Her eyelashes are about 1” long and she has big black eyes and a little round nose.  We are so excited about getting her.  Remember how Paul used to tell everyone how he never wanted a girl—he melts every time he sees her.  He’ll have her spoiled within a month!”

Then one day’s visit changed everything.  Eleanor found that a nurse had switched their baby girl Fatia for another baby.  “I almost lost my mind over this.  They told us we didn’t even pick Fatia out, that we wanted another baby—the nurse had everyone in the orphanage agree with her.”   By this time Eleanor had spent hours playing with Fatia and caring for her, she knew a switch had occurred.

The Feltons were aware that ‘saving face’ is monumental in Iranian culture.  That and avoiding shame at all costs can be seen as the motivating force behind a lot of decision making.  Eleanor pressed to find Fatia but no one in the orphanage would own up to the fact that babies had been switched.

The Feltons are strong Christians and held tightly to their belief that God is in control, even when situations are spiraling out of control.   When faced with a situation like this, they must have asked themselves—‘do we continue to pursue Fatia or is this a closed door we are not meant to go through?’

Eleanor was tenacious.  She continued to pursue Fatia and finally learned that she had been given to a Swedish girl.  Eleanor questioned why the orphanage staff had allowed her to “wrap {herself} up in this child knowing they weren’t going to let me have her—they couldn’t answer me.  They just said I was mistaken because I had never picked that baby out in the first place.’

Fortunately Eleanor’s best friend and fellow American, Glenny accompanied Eleanor on her to her visits to the orphanage to see Fatia prior to the incident.   Glenny also adopted a baby girl while in Iran, Anahita.

“If Glenny hadn’t gone with me each time to visit the baby I think I would have thought I was going crazy.  To say the least I was very upset and I felt I should get to the bottom of the situation….no one would take the blame though and I accomplished nothing.

I decided to go see the Swedish girl to see if she had paid money to get Fatia.  The night before was the longest day of my life and I really didn’t want to face the girl.  I knew she would never give the baby up, but I had to know if she really loved Fatia as much as I did.”

Eleanor found the Swedish girl to be very sweet and completely innocent of all the intrigue surrounding switching Fatia.   She had traveled from Sweden solely to adopt and had no other children of her own.

When the Swedish girl learned of what had happened to the Feltons, she fell apart and could not stop shaking.   Eleanor recounted, “After meeting her God really gave me a peace about the baby.  Although I had to walk away empty handed and knowing I had been tricked, I knew the girl really loved Fatia as much as I did.”

Eleanor learned the Swedish girl had been going to see Fatia during Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday, every day, the same as she had been doing.    The orphanage watched as two women vested themselves in the same child, unaware of each other’s presence or the heartache that awaited them.

Eleanor resigned herself to Fatia being someone else’s daughter and decided to push forward with another attempt.   She and Paul felt they would have to try in another city to avoid the orphanage in Tehran that had deceived them the first time.  They feared any interaction with this orphanage again would lead to a child being abused because of Eleanor’s persistence to find out what had happened to Fatia.

Eleanor continued to chronicle their journey home to her and Paul’s parents.  “You have no idea the let down when we lost Fatia, I think that’s why I’ve been so ‘blue’ lately and haven’t felt like writing.”  Sharing her heart with family thousands of miles away must have helped to give voice to the ache that resonated deep within her.

Then one day an urgent call came from a teacher at Trey’s school, “do you still want to adopt a baby girl?”  Paul’s answer was a resounding ‘yes!’.   A baby girl was about to be placed into an orphanage  (the orphanage that had deceived them the first time) and if the Feltons moved quickly, maybe they could get her before she was admitted.

The Feltons jumped in motion.  They learned that the baby girl, named Massoumeh had been born about 50 miles away.  Her mother had died two days after Massoumeh’s birth.

The father had decided he did not want to be burdened with a baby he could not feed or care for.  He also knew that Massoumeh would probably be beaten when he remarried because his new wife would resent raising another woman’s baby.

Paul and Eleanor met the father and Massoumeh that day.  “She looked fine from the waist up, but from the waist down there was no skin left at all.  They had wrapped her tight thinking that her legs would grow straight, but had never bothered to change her.  Massoumeh had been left this way for weeks, in the hopes that she would just die.”

The Feltons took Massoumeh to the doctors to get her the medical care she so desperately needed.  The doctors told the Feltons they did not except the baby to live over night due to her pneumonia, malnourishment and infections.  They warned the Feltons not to get attached to her.  The Feltons watched Massoumeh make it through the night and survive against all odds.  They swung into action to get paperwork going for an adoption.

The father agreed to sign Massoumeh over to the Feltons that day, unfortunately three different notaries refused their services.   Adoption to a Christian family is something that no one wanted to sign their name to for fear of repercussions down the road.

Finally the Feltons found a notary who would agree to sign, on one condition– Massoumeh’s grandfather would also have to sign her over.  That meant a trip out to his village 2 ½ hours away.

Getting his signature would present a problem.  The adoption would bring shame on his family.   Further shame would be brought by bringing the Feltons, who were Christians, into the Muslim village.  Remember that shame and saving face guided decision-making through this whole process.

They decided to tell the villagers that Paul was a driver for a Muslim family to gain him admittance to the village.  They located the grandfather who upon hearing the story, immediately refused permission.  He would not have his granddaughter be raised by people he considered dirty because of their beliefs.  After some pleading, Massoumeh’s aunt was finally able to convince him to sign.

Relief flooded the Feltons.  It appeared that things were finally starting to go as they would like.  They headed back to Tehran, to the notary who had agreed to sign on the condition of Massoumeh’s grandfather’s signature.

They presented the signature to the notary and he promptly told them he had changed his mind.  He would no longer sign the papers, for fear of the repercussions that awaited him.

The Feltons took their case to a higher authority.  They appeared before the head judge in Tehran two days later.  Before their meeting with the judge they found a lawyer who would complete the paperwork for them.

The Feltons met up with Massoumeh’s family again with the paperwork and found that her father had changed his mind again.   He decided they did not want to give the baby to the Feltons.

Was it possible that the Felton’s had jumped through this many hoops only to loose a second baby in a matter of months?  Things looked bleak, but in this bleakness is where God shines brightest.   He is the Master at bringing hope to the hopeless and revealing Himself when we are at the end of our rope.

Massoumeh’s family’s refusal to allow the adoption to happen had nothing to do with their love for her.  It was all rooted in ‘saving face’.  They were afraid their story being shared in the Grandfather’s village had shamed their family.  They were looking to save face, even if saving face meant a baby had to die of neglect.

Paul got an idea.  He encouraged Massoumeh’s father to take her back to the village, show her to everyone and assure them she was still his.  Then, he could quietly hand Massoumeh over to the Feltons and proceed with the adoption.

Massoumeh’s father agreed with the plan.  Not only that, but he agreed to complete the paperwork signing his baby over to the Feltons that day!  Cut to several hours later at the lawyer’s office and Massoumeh’s father changed his mind yet again and refused to give her up.  It all kept going back to the shame of the whole situation.

This roller coaster would just not quit.  The twists and turns must have seemed beyond bearing.  Eleanor recalled how Trey and Scott cried many times afraid they would not get to keep Massoumeh.  Living in a constant state of tension like this takes its toll on the body and mind of everyone involved.

Paul was responsible for all the paperwork and proceedings to adopt Massoumeh because a woman’s signature did not make a document legal.   So as they stood in the attorney’s office Paul knew Eleanor, who was at home with Massoumeh and the boys, had no idea of the bad news he’d be bringing home.

Paul gathered Eleanor’s closest friends to surround her when Massoumeh’s father and aunt came to take her away.   Very little can ease the gut wrenching loss a mother feels when her child is forcibly taken from her arms.  But at a loss for any other idea, Paul hoped friends who would mourn with them could help to ease the loss they were about to experience.

Massoumeh’s Aunt and father came to the house to take her away.  Eleanor lost it…then so did the aunt.   Massoumeh’s family was torn because they could see how well she was being cared for.

In comes the aunt to save the day, again.  She comes up with an idea that will allow Massoumeh’s family to save face and still give her to the Feltons.

They would wait 40 days to complete the mourning process for Massoumeh’s mother. Then her father and aunt would take Massoumeh back to her grandfather’s village to show the villagers she was going to be adopted by a Muslim family.

A 40 day wait… I cannot imagine the interminableness of that wait and the intensity that must have burned within the Feltons to have that wait be over!

Who was the Muslim family to be?  The aunt decided to create a fake adoptive family.  She lined up a friend of hers to pose as the potential adoptive mother.  The woman’s brother would pose as her husband.

The day this plan was set into motion felt like someone bound an eternity up into one day and told the Feltons to be still and wait.   A thousand and one things could go wrong, all of which would leave them empty handed at the end of the day.   A thousand things already had gone wrong, why should this day be any different?  Eleanor braced herself knowing her arms that ached to rock Massoumeh would find no comfort if things continued as they had for the months prior.

(Massoumeh’s father)

The Feltons knew the general impression Iranians have of Americans is that they are all rich.  This strongly comes into play when dealing with the adoption process.   The Feltons were not rich but Eleanor recounted, “I think Paul would have given them $10,000 if they insisted—he wasn’t about to lose her.”

The woman posing as the mother took Massoumeh into the Grandfather’s village and assured the villagers she was taking her to live in Tehran.  She also assured them she would never return.  The “never return’ part was what they were most interested in.   Shame unseen becomes ‘out of sight out of mind.’

(Jill’s letters passed on from her mom that relayed their fight to secure Jill.  She is wearing the bracelet that was on her wrist at 6 weeks old.  The bracelet is the size of a safety pin.)

Massoumeh arrived back from the village that day with all the proper papers.  Lastly all that was required was her father’s signature to release her to the Feltons.  Eleanor recounted, “Her father upset me because he asked for money and another thing Jill doesn’t mean anything to him.”

When Eleanor relayed the story in her letters she began to call Massoumeh by the name her family would give her, Jill.  “The father didn’t bat an eye when he gave Jill up, but I guess its better that way for all concerned.  You sure need God on your side when you adopt here.  Every adoption is different and no one wants to take the responsibility.”

Paul sent letters home so family could accompany them in prayer support on their journey thousands of miles away.   In the proudest papa voice that could be imagined from a letter he announced, “meet your new grand-daughter Jill Marie Massoumeh.  She is 40 days old, 3 kilograms, 50 grams (about 6 ½ lbs).

(The medallion was a gift from Glenny who also adopted a little girl from Iran.  It was a graduation gift.)

Eleanor followed up with letters to the family celebrating their newest baby girl.   She celebrated how much Scott and Trey loved Jill.  “I thought they would be excited at first and then it would wear off, but they want to be with her all the time.  They have a game they play—Jill lays on the floor and they hide from her—if they can reach base before she finds them by turning her little head to look at them, they get a run or 1 point.  Of course Jill is entertained by this.”

(Massoumeh’s Iranian passport)

“She has really been a blessing to our family, I never realized I could enjoy a baby so much.   I thought I was over that after having Scott and Trey.  Trey climbs under Jill’s basinet with his blanket to sleep.  We are so lucky to have Jill; she is so perfect.  I feel like Jill is a gift from God because all four of us love her so much.”

Often significance is attached to the naming of a child.  Jill’s birth name, Massoumeh, means innocent.  Eleanor believes it was given so she would not carry the blame for her mother dying from childbirth.

People ask Jill all the time how she feels about being adopted.   She tells them she has always seen the Feltons as her family.   Her mom, dad and brothers are the people who encouraged her to soar in this life.  They are the people who never made her feel she was different.   Jill also considers her birth mother with gratitude.   The woman who gave her life so Jill could have hers will always hold a bit of mystery and a lot of love in Jill’s heart.

Jill is grateful for God’s providence to step in and save her from the life of poverty and abuse she would have suffered.    You can never know the twists and turns life will take….how Fatia’s life could have been Jill’s….how her life would have been different in Iran…the possibilities are endless.

(Jill’s adoption papers)

Being adopted was never anything Jill struggled with growing up, but being different was.  Growing up in Manchester Jill was one of three minorities in her whole school.  The other two minorities were twin brothers.  So, yes, at times that caused a lot of isolation and loneliness.  KKK members lived just down the street and told her to ‘go back to where she came from.’

Two boys in particular would chase her down the school halls spewing racial slurs and taunts.  They would try to catch her and put notes in the hood of her coat with scorching words like, “go back to Africa *igger.

Jill was teased because she didn’t look like everyone else.  Her beauty was not yet revealed to her peers in a way that’s so obvious today.   Growing up there were no Persian Barbie dolls.  This caused Jill to look at life through a different lens.  She found beauty in uniqueness.  She also found creativity as an outlet for expressing her heart in a way that made heritage irrelevant.

Anyone who knows Jill knows her love of fashion and design.  She shares her passions and talents with everyone around her.  This partially stems from her mother who is also a creative genius, and I believe partially from her identification with her native culture.  Teheran city dwellers are very fashion conscience, modeling themselves after Paris fashions.  That’s Jill to a T!

Jill’s creative expression takes its form in the interior design of her home, her elaborate stylized cake designs, cutting and styling friends hair and exotic food preparation.  Odds are she’ll have designer jeans and heels on while doing all this!

Two years ago Jill was approached about sharing her story at her church, LifePoint, in Finksburg.  The hope was her story would help to point others to the great redemptive love of our God.  A condensed version of Jill’s adoption story was told via a pre-recorded interview on Mother’s Day.  There were few dry eyes in the large congregation.

Jill’s hope was that her story would point others to trusting God to turn their mourning into gladness, their despair into praise and raise up beauty from their ashes as He promises in Isaiah 61:3.

She hopes that other little girls will trust God to bring His beauty out in their lives, in His time.  God promises to make all things beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11) …sometimes we get to be a part of the unveiling of that beauty…

Last year as her Mother’s Day gift her husband Ben bought her the Massoumeh tattoo you see on her wrist.  Below her name is 43:1 which references Isaiah 43:1, “Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.”

(US document legalizing Jill’s adoption)

So how fitting that this portrait session tells Jill’s story on Mother’s Day to honor her, Eleanor, Paul, her birth mother and every mother who has chosen to walk around with her heart on her sleeve.  To every mother who has been tenacious in her pursuit of the best for her children—Happy Mother’s Day!  Our desire to pour ourselves into our children makes the heart of our Father God smile!

  1. Judy says:

    Jill, I am so blessed to know you, and thankful God was there for you and your family step by step. It is a testament to how God is in control and always with us even when we are oblivious to his presence. I am always cheered by your fantastic smile and am glad you are someone I have the honor of knowing. What an inspirational story and shoot. You and Jennifer did a fantastic job.

  2. Nicole Hunsicker says:

    What a beautiful story of God's fierce love for his child. I love how evident your friendship with Jennifer is throughout this piece~ it makes your incredible story that much more beautiful being written by someone near and dear. I had chills so many times reading through. Jennifer is right~ Jill, you are gorgeous and your story could be a movie or book!!! Thanking God for His plan for even the tiniest of babies.

  3. Chris Tobias says:

    Jill, what an amazing story….beautifully told!

  4. Rachelle says:

    What a beautiful session and story. So happy to have you in my life. Wish we would have known each other better years ago.

  5. Jill Varnum says:

    Jill, your story is amazing! I am thankful to know your story! You are beautiful inside & out..a truly wonderful person! I feel blessed to have you as a neighbor & friend.

  6. Jenn Waldman says:

    Jill, you look AMAZING in the pictures! You have always been beautiful inside and out. I am blessed and proud to be your friend. I'm glad we found each other in this crazy, big world! Love you!!!!!!

  7. Maggie Felton says:

    Amazing story!!!! Incredable photography!!

  8. Rani says:

    Dear Jill- this is such a beautiful story and you are absolutely stunning- inside and out. It brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. Amy Pitrone says:

    What a beautiful story:) What an amazing journey:) As usual Jennifer, the pictures are remarkable.

  10. Heather says:

    Wow! What a wonderful story. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank you Jennifer for the beautiful pictures. Thank you Jill for sharing your story. Please tell your parents thank you for their tenacity. God is good!

  11. Ben Jackson says:

    Jennifer – to say that I am appreciative and blown away by your ability to masterfully weave together Jill's adoption story through words and photos would be the understatement of a lifetime. Although I have heard the story told several times with nuances added each time, it is safe to say I have never heard it told so eloquently and thoroughly as you managed to compose it. The pictures were absolutely beautiful although I must say I am extremely biased to the main object in the photos (my lovely wife):-). Hearing the story again in a fresh new way coupled with the artistry of the pictures really left me with one main thought – praise God! Thank you for being such a wonderful friend to Jill, an amazing storyteller and photographer, and for "letting your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven". (Matthew 5:19)

  12. Jennifer DiDio says:

    ladies—thank you for your stepping into Jill's story by sharing your encouragement and love for her here! Ben—we so hoped you would 'get' what us 2 crazy girls were doing by way of a home made newspaper dress and a vision to tell a story of God's amazing intervention to save 'the least of these'!!! So glad to hear you have fallen in love with what we produced as much as we have!!! W H A T A J O U R N E Y serving this amazing God of ours!!!!! jennifer 😉

  13. Katie Everhart says:

    Awesome story, Jill! What a testimony you have and what a great thing for your kids to carry with them and tell of to their children too! Your pictures are so beautiful!

  14. Susan says:

    Beautifully done girls! Love the shot by the car, in the chair and the natural shots too! Living proof that He makes BEAUTY FROM ASHES!!!

  15. Julie says:

    Jennifer- Ahhh, I think this story is the most captivating one you have ever told! Amazing, redemptive, and life-giving! Beautiful in all ways!

  16. Anthony says:

    Absolutely beautiful story with a wonderful ending. All these years Jill and I never knew.

  17. beautiful pictures, Jill…jaw dropping. you are beautiful inside and out! thank you for sharing your story with us all and thank you for giving seth and i the strength and faith to ride out our miracle this last year. you are a blessing…
    and Jennifer lurrrrvvv looking at your blog and your photography is ughhh-mazing. so very talented…xoox

  18. Tommy says:

    Innocent. When I read that- it tied everything together. When humans go to those lengths it becomes evident that love is real. When I was reading I could feel how powerful it was. Jill I am so happy we met and you never cease to amaze me. Landrace means pure to the land of origin. Jill you are the Iranian Landrace, the prettiest flower in all the land. Thank you for sharing this with me 😊

  19. […] Perhaps PJ is drawn to Doll’s story because of her mom’s own adoption story which we told several years ago on the blog.  Click here to read Jill’s adoption story.  […]

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