The four boys were seated on a living room sofa at their new home in Forestville the other night, occasionally laughing at cartoons on television, when the youngest one pointed to a framed photograph nearby.
"That's my aunt, and this is my mommy," said Charles Willis, 5, as the other boys fell silent.
Their grandmother, Linda Willis, picked up the photograph and said softly, "My daughter and my daughter-in-law."
It had been more than six months since the automobile crash that killed Willis's daughter Michelle Rene Brown, 27; her daughter-in-law Lashawn Dennise Willis, 30; and their best friend, Tabitha White, 19.
On June 30, a shooting suspect fleeing Prince George's County police ran a red light in Northeast Washington and hit their car. The three women had eight children among them.
Willis, 53, took in four. In an instant, she'd lost her girls and become a new mom. "I was planning to move to New York and be with my father, who has Alzheimer's," Willis said. "But this kind of threw me for a loop."
The four boys sleep in a bedroom with two single beds and a dozen action figures lined across a shelf. Andre, 9, and Dominic, 8, are the sons of Michelle Brown, Willis's daughter. Arlando Wright, 9, and Charles, 5, are the sons of Lashawn Willis, whose husband, Charles, Willis's son, works as a long-distance truck driver.
Four more children are being cared for by others.
District officials continue to investigate the crash, which occurred at 58th Street and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. Prince George's police are investigating the pursuit as well as the shooting that initiated it.
Among the questions that remain unanswered are why Prince George's police did not notify D.C. police once they saw the suspect crossing the state line, and why residents in the area of the crash never heard sirens or saw flashing lights as required during a police pursuit.
Police said the driver of the fleeing car, who escaped after the crash, had been a suspect in a felony shooting, which is a legitimate cause for chase.
But Willis remains incredulous.
"How can they justify a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood?" she asked. "My daughter's car was crushed so small, it looked like you could pick it up."
She was also perturbed because police had located the owner of the fleeing car soon after the crash but then announced that the owner had refused to cooperate with them. No arrests have been made. Nor has any police official called the Willis family to offer condolences.
"Here you have the D.C. police force looking under every rock and bush for Chandra Levy, meeting with her family anytime they fly in from Modesto," Calif., Willis said. "But they don't have time for us."
A D.C. police spokesman said that it has been difficult getting evidence identifying the driver at the time of the crash and that anyone with information about the case should call the department's major crash unit at 202-727-1698.
Despite her anger and sadness, however, Willis tries to stay focused on the boys, who are still struggling to comprehend what has happened to their mothers.
"The other day, we were in the car and Charles says to me, 'I'm going to the store,' " Willis recalled. "I say, 'No, we are not going right now.' And he says, 'But Mommy said we could go.' He thinks of things his mother would have said a while back and has no concept of time. It's like she just said it to him. I just have to be patient and do my best to help him understand."
What used to be an easygoing start to the day for Willis, who lived alone, has now become a scramble to wake up, clothe and feed her new charges, then chauffeur them to school. Afterward, she helps with homework, prepares dinner and readies them for bed.
"I don't know if I can continue to do what I need to do in order to make my normal living," said Willis, who is a real estate agent. "You can't take children on appointments."
At his birthday party in October, Andre went into his bedroom and cried.
"I asked what was the matter," Willis recalled, "and he said this was the first time his mother was not here so how can we have a party?"
Christmas was even worse, she said, with all of the boys asking for their mothers.
"Little Charles knows that his mother is in heaven, but he still expects her to walk around the corner at any moment," Willis said. "Andre keeps a little journal. He'll write, 'Mommy, how are you? How is Heaven today? When are you coming home?' "
Willis sighed and took a seat alongside her boys.
"I believe the man upstairs never puts on you more than you can bear," Willis said. "But I can't possibly think of a reason for having a worn-out old lady caring for kids who miss their mothers so."