Her name is Lizzie Ballard Langley, and she is 9 years old. Nowhere is there a smile that is brighter or prettier.
She shows her fourth-grade homework and her tests with good grades on them. Lizzie talks about using the iPad at her elementary school. Her mother is dead from bullets, yet the little girl still wears a shirt with a sparkly heart on it over the word, “Peace.”
“I sure would like an iPad for Christmas,” said Lizzie. “I could get way ahead on my schoolwork.”
She runs to another room for a T-shirt that says “I make a difference” on the back. The school gave it to her for outstanding work.
“I got the shirt because I help my grandma and I walk a little girl home after school to make sure she is safe,” said Lizzie.
She held that shirt up and nobody ever was prouder of a shirt.
Then Lizzie sat down with her social studies book because she has a test soon.
“I’m going to ace it, too,” Lizzie said. “I want to be in the Marines. And I want to be a police officer.”
Next to her sat older brother Timothy, 12, who wants a BB-gun like a million 12-year-old boys.
“I wanted to be in the Marines first,” he pouted.
Across from them sat Anthony, 16, who like all 16-year-old kids wants a car. He showed his driver’s license like the Sultan of Brunei shows diamonds and oil wells.
On the other end of the couch in the little living room of the rented house on Rock Hill’s Stonewall Street 67-year-old Brenda Langley sat and rubbed her face with her hands that used to wash laundry at a nursing home. For years Langley scrubbed the clothes and floors for seniors. She cleaned the day before and the day after one of her daughters, Kathy, was shot and killed in April 2011 at age 43 in Virginia. Kathy had run off with a younger man in the last escapade of a life of drugs and abandonment and left her three youngest children with Langley.
Co-workers and others helped pay for a funeral and still Langley scrubbed at work. Then a tree fell on her house and wrecked the roof just days after the daughter was shot.
Somehow she worked straight through 2011 and adopted these three youngest children of her daughter last year before Christmas in a court hearing where the judge declared that Langley had done a “phenomenal” job doing all she could to raise these kids under the worst circumstances.
Soon after Christmas, though, Langley fell in the hallway at home. She needed surgery and could not work. Then she needed a hip replacement. She still owes money on that, too.
The unpaid light bill is in a purse, with the word “disconnection” on it.
The refrigerator is on an enclosed porch and not in the kitchen because it will not fit through the door and there sure is no money to buy a smaller refrigerator or pay anybody who moves things to wiggle the big refrigerator inside.
Langley, a widow, gets food stamps and survives somehow on the $683-a-month Social Security check and the $219-a-month benefits she gets for the three kids. She has to go to charities for help and this makes Brenda Langley cry and hurt in her heart.
“It’s not that I don’t want to work. I can’t work,” Langley said. “Until I get rid of this cane, I can’t go back to my job. I’m 67 years old but I need to work.”
Langley gets up like she is going to work but she can barely walk. She can’t weigh 100 pounds.
Yet she stands anyway. Strength comes from somewhere after raising all her kids and so many grandkids for 50 years and she is still doing it all day and every day on one leg.
Last week on the way back from the doctor and physical therapy – “I owe for that, too,” Langley said – the old jalopy Langley had been driving for years stopped dead in the street. There is no money to fix it and surely no money for another car.
“We’re not poor,” said Lizzie Ballard Langley, age 9, smiling to fill the darkening room with light. “We have each other.”
Anthony, in high school, brings out his report card that he carries around in his book bag because it is As and Bs and a C that he raised already to a B and he is so proud.
“I hope to be a lawyer when I grow up,” said Anthony. “Wanna see my tattoo?”
Langley, the grandmother, gasped because she does not like tattoos but this was not just some tattoo and the grandson wanted it so badly. It is a tattoo on his right arm with the birth date and death date of Katherine Langley McManus, shot dead in April 2011.
“My mother, so I always have her close,” said Anthony.
His mother had drug and alcohol problems and she ran off, and her six children including three who are grown now often had Brenda Langley the grandmother as the only “mother” in their lives, but she still was the mother.
The 21-year-old who shot Katherine “Kathy” Ballard McManus in the face, Chris Dotson, is in a Virginia prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Dotson got 10 years.
“I could barely walk, they had to almost carry me into the courtroom, but I went all the way there to see that man who killed my daughter,” Brenda Langley said. “Kathy, I can’t help what she done in her life, she had her problems and she caused problems, too, but she was mine and these kids, she was their mama. I am going to do all I can do for them as long as I got breath in my lungs. I always raised ’em like they was mine and I still do.”
There in the living room is a white Christmas tree, a gift from somebody, with nothing underneath it.
Langley was asked what she wanted for Christmas.
“I just want to live another year older, and to be here to take care of these kids,” she said. “I can’t give up because these kids need me to be strong.”
She looked at the kids. Anthony the high schooler who loves basketball and cars and girls. Timothy the middle schooler so shy who finally admitted he has girlfriends in middle school. And little Lizzie.
Lizzie was asked if there is a Santa Claus.
“I’m not so sure,” Lizzie said. “I know grandma got some gifts for people last year and she is not Santa.”
The gifts were what Langley gave last year, before she fell, after the adoption, after the killing and the fallen tree that crushed her home, using all the money she had scrounged and saved to give these kids what she could for a Christmas after the mother’s death by gunshots.
This year there is no saved money.
“These kids, they do good in school and they get out of bed and get on that school bus and they mind me,” Langley said. “They are good young’uns. Smart. I am proud of ’em.”
Anthony smiled. Even shy Timmy smiled. And Lizzie, she always smiles, even when the Christmas tree next to her doesn’t have a single thing underneath it, because that grandmother is right there loving her even if there are tears in Brenda Langley’s eyes.