Louise Scott was heading home for the holidays, or so she told the other recruits in her basic training unit in Georgia. She conjured images of a crackling fire, overstuffed armchairs and a fat turkey laced with soaked cranberries. In reality, the cocky 18-year-old holed up by herself at the nearby YWCA.

Thirty-five years later, that lonesome holiday season still haunts Scott: "I created a fantasy family, told everyone about them. There would be this home to lay back and relax after weeks of tough basic training. Then I suddenly realized that I didn't have a home to go to."

Just the smell of a roasting fowl on a cold afternoon instantly recalls the Norman Rockwell family: smiles all around the table as a full-bodied maternal figure parades her culinary masterpiece. This is home. This is the holiday table.

Yet many former foster youths never sat in that classic American dining room. They understand neglect and abuse better than an annual tradition of family and sharing. And when those green and red tinseled decorations get hung on street lights, Christmas becomes downright hard to take.

That's how Scott felt. Only a few months earlier, she had bid a firm farewell to her last foster mom in her haste to break free of the Virginia state foster care system and join the military. Foster wasn't really family, she concluded.

Scott was surprised when a fellow recruit found her at the Non-Commissioned Officer's Club and invited her home on the eve of the holidays. "I did spend Thanksgiving with her family," recalls Scott. "They made me feel as if I belonged, whether there were blood ties or not. Suddenly I realized that I needed to give a little bit. And I asked to make a long-distance call."

Scott phoned the woman in Virginia--the one she had fled from in her hasty emancipation from the child welfare system--and asked to come home for Christmas. Which she did, that year and for the 30-odd years that followed.

Many kids still are waiting for their happy ending. Terry Harrak watches holiday preparations begin in early November, stirring a potent mix of emotions in the 20-year-old. Except for very early childhood memories of tempting Santa with decorated sugar cookies, Harrak has no joyful family album.

"Christmas is going to be really hard for me this year. I'm thinking about volunteering at a hospital or homeless shelter," she announces.

Harrak is still bruised from being bounced out of the foster care system at age 18. Though she landed at a program designed to prepare adolescents for independence, that also is nearing an end. "Everything has a time limit," she sadly comments.

Except the holiday season, of course, which unfolds anew year after year, bitterly reminding Harrak that she hasn't got a true home. "I'm housed, sheltered," she says, "but, as far as I'm concerned, I'll be homeless for the holidays."

Amy Clay has only learned to appreciate the holidays by watching other families. Last Thanksgiving, when she was a freshman at George Washington University, her friend Nick insisted she spend the holidays with his clan. "It's the first time," she says, "I watched a whole family interact and thought: 'Wow, awesome!' "

But there's plenty she would like to forget, like the Christmas when she was a sophomore in high school and tried repairing the frayed relationship with her biological mother--a woman she hadn't lived with since infancy. "My mother went off and got drunk, leaving me with my half-siblings. When I confronted her, she had my step-dad drive me back to the foster home," she recalls.

When the foster parents finally returned, late on Christmas night, Clay wound up in an argument with them as well. Eventually she just walked the streets of the dark neighborhood alone, watching wistfully as the signs of Christmas emanated from behind locked doors.

Sometimes holiday miracles happen: Eileen McCaffrey directs the Orphan Foundation of America, a nonprofit children's advocacy group in Vienna that provides "a voice for children who have no voice."

Several years ago, McCaffrey and a friend decided to throw a "blowout" Christmas for her former foster son, David, by reuniting him with a cousin and a younger brother for the holidays.

David hadn't spent any time with his younger brother since he was 5 or with his cousin since both were 9. That was the year they got picked up as neglect cases on D.C.'s streets and sent to group homes and residential facilities in three separate states.

The cousins were 16, the brother 11, when McCaffrey devised her reunion scheme. She bombarded the house with more than 50 Christmas cards addressed to the kids, which the boys taped on the walls. Batch after batch of cookies emerged from the oven. Presents arrived too.

For meals, McCaffrey prepared ham and french fries, pork and french fries, turkey and french fries. But the best part, McCaffrey says, was listening to them in bed at night.

"They laid there for hours telling those 'remember when' stories," she recalls. "Horror stories, really, but even the worst stuff from their early childhood just sent them into peals of laughter."

For many foster parents like McCaffrey, the holidays are a time of preparedness, stocking up for the possibility of new or former foster children appearing at the door.

You never really know what's going to happen, says Shirley Hedges, president of the National Foster Parent Association. Two years ago, for example, a 13-year-old asked to leave the home she was in at midnight on Christmas eve.

"She arrived at my home at 1 a.m., surprised to find that Santa knew she would be here, too," Hedges recalls.

"I always keep extra presents in the closet. And it's the same at the Christmas dinner table. There's always room for one more," she explains.

Christmas in Connecticut is a holiday tradition for the Duffey family. And this year Pat Duffey has asked her children, and grandchildren, to talk specifically about what Christmas means to them in an ethnic sense.

Eight-year-old Joseph Duffey competes in Irish dancing events the way other kids his age scuffle on the soccer fields. So he'll be talking about Ireland, says his father, Michael Duffey.

Master Sgt. Alejandro Baez undoubtedly will be describing the festivities in Puerto Rico. Michael was a young teenager in the late '60s when 10-year-old Alex Baez entered the Duffey home. "Alex was one of a series of foster kids who came into my home," he recalls. "Most only stayed a couple of nights."

Alex came from the inner-city Puerto Rican neighborhood in Hartford. His mother was stricken with tuberculosis and hospitalized. "He didn't really speak English, but he understood. He was quiet, passive, would hardly even eat anything except bananas and rice," Michael says of the new arrival.

When Michael's father, Joe Duffey, ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1970 Connecticut race, Alex appeared in all the family pictures. "Rumors and suspicions circulated that this Hispanic kid was put out there to enhance my dad's image," Michael says with a laugh.

As the past blends with the present in a confusion of holiday seasons, Michael says he doesn't recall the exact point when Alex transcended "foster" status. The Duffey's never adopted him; there were even periods of time Alex returned to his recuperating mother, now dead.

But Pat Duffey, now divorced from Joe and living with her partner, Cathy Ferry, simply refers to the boys returning for Christmas as "my three sons."

Alex will be there with his wife and children. "Mom will offer to take him to Christmas services. And like my brother and I, Alex goes along because she wants him to," Michael says. "And like us, he'll like the services once he gets there."

Resources

Twenty thousand youths "age out" of the foster care system every year, many without family or responsible friends to guide them. To understand more about these adolescents who become too old for foster care, read a series of articles by Susan Kellam at the Benton Foundation Web site, www.connectforkids.org.

Also, contact Orphan Foundation of America, a nonprofit children's advocacy group in Vienna. Its "e-Mentors Program" is geared toward busy professionals who can connect with foster kids via the Internet. An application for this program can be found on the foundation's Web site, www.orphan.org.

You can learn more about being a foster parent from the National Foster Parent Association, 800-557-5238, or at www.nfpainc.org.