THE BLOG
12/24/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

The Great White Lie About Welfare Moms

"Merry Christmas, Mom!" my young daughter, 11, squealed, as she and her two brothers ran around our favorite tree lot. "This is the one place," she continued, "you can say 'Merry Christmas' and no one gets upset about it." "That's true," I chuckled. But, that was a white lie.

My parents separated in 1971, during one of Seattle's coldest winters. A record 1122 inches of snow fell on Mt. Rainier that year.

I was 12, and now living with my mom, brother, 8, and sister, 16, in a rented house so small, my sister called it "the Crackerjack box." Our new home was furnished with a few remnants from our past. Our cupboards were now filled with canned food, bearing the stamp of "U.S. Department of Welfare," and we paid for food with orange coupons. My dad had taken a job at The Los Angeles Times, and was living with his new girlfriend.

I recall the many sleepless nights that followed, brought on by the dire anticipation of our new morning routine.

My mom started getting up at the crack of dawn. She would clang pots and pans in the kitchen. Next, she was banging the vacuum cleaner against my bedroom door. "Do you mind?" I mistakenly yelled out one day. "Don't you tell me what to do!," she yelled back. "Your father is no good! He left you kids!" "No!" I wanted to scream, but never did. "He left you!" But, I settled on the romantic notion that he just had somewhere else to go.

When Christmas came that year, we made Christmas dinner from groceries and money left anonymously on our doorstep. Later that day, our now social worker filled our house with donated gifts wrapped in bright foil packaging. We thought each gift was chosen especially for each of us: "12-year-old-girl"; 8-year-old-boy"; "16-year-old-girl"; "a mother." Instead, the gifts were a bleak reminder of those things people had thrown away: tattered sweaters, dolls without clothes, pictures with broken frames, and children's board games with missing pieces.

Just the year before, we lived in Japan, after my parents returned from intensive interviews in New York, where my dad won a coveted, all-expenses paid, year-long, Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. The judges included Norman Mailer, Harrison Salisbury, and professors from Columbia University. My Indonesian-born mom, helped cinch the award with her ability to answer the panelists' questions in five different languages, including Japanese. (I still have a handwritten note of congratulations from William Randolph Hearst, II, sent to my dad at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as it was part of Hearst Newspapers.)

Soon after, we jetted off to the romantic, mountain resort town of Karuizawa. We spent summer days on the veranda of the Mompei Hotel (where John Lennon used to stay), touring, attending dinner/dance parties, and playing tennis every day on clay courts at a private tennis club, with children of local and international dignitaries. When the fall rains came, and washed away all the courts, we settled down in Tokyo, and attended the prestigious American School in Japan.

Sometime before Christmas 1972, I received a typed letter from my dad (as was his habit, and I've saved them all), saying, "My plan is to come home and get the family together." It was signed with a big heart. Soon, he made good on his promise.

It was 80 degrees when we arrived in Los Angeles. Our new home was surrounded by homes with built-in swimming pools. I couldn't wait to write my return address on a letter: Kerrie Houston, North Hollywood, CA. It was the home of my dreams--a home with my dad in it.

Within a week, and even before the moving van had arrived, the sound of the front screen-door slamming, signaled that my parents' old problems didn't go away with their new surroundings.

Our dad returned with us to Seattle, long enough to get us settled. He disappeared as quickly as the new puppy he bought us, that got lost in that year's snowstorm. When Christmas Eve came, we got a tree for free, that was left unsold on a lot. The next day, our furnace had broken down again. That night we sat huddled around the stove with the oven door open, warming our hands and feet, waiting for our Christmas dinner to cook: toasted cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate.

My mom went back to school (through the Women In Need program), and was hired by the Girl Scouts of America, from where she eventually retired. Her evenings were spent volunteering at the Language Bank, and helping moms from the very country that caused her family so much strife, during her internment in a Japanese Concentration Camp, during WWII. My dad eventually moved back to Seattle, but my parents never got back together, as is the hope of most kids from divorced families, I imagine.

I wanted to end this holiday story neatly, about how I learned the true meaning of strength and forgiveness from my mom. But, it's more than that. Last week, I was again standing on our favorite tree lot, looking at my now grown daughter, 22, a world-class athlete, high school class president (twice), an honors student at two of the most prestigious research universities in the country, seeking a Ph.D. in psychology. I was thinking, sadly, how society has forged a tired template of women in need as helpless, uneducated, meaningless, obese souls, who create nothing more than a revolving door of generations of more of the same. That's the greatest white lie of them all.