Ma, on edge at the airport, waiting for a hug Homecoming: Kaye Yarrell sent her son to Kenya last year to keep him off the mean streets. Now he's coming home, and she doesn't know what to expect.

July 03, 1998|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Editor's note: In May the Today section wrote about Kay Yarrell, a West Baltimore mother who sent her 12-year-old son to the Baraka School, a boarding school in Kenya run by the Abell Foundation. This week, Jerrell Milliner, now 13, arrived home for summer vacation. He is expected to return to Kenya for the second year of the two-year program in September. This is the epilogue to his mother's story.

A blind date. That's what it felt like. Funny to think of it that way, a blind date with your son, but for Kaye Yarrell, the questions -- and the fear -- were the same. Would he be taller? Thinner? Bigger? Would he have a mustache? Would he be the playful child she sent to Kenya last September, or a creature so quiet and calm that he might as well be a stranger?

Will he be wearing his glasses? He is supposed to be wearing his glasses.

As she waited at the airport, Kaye felt shaky and scared. She didn't know how to act. She didn't know what to say. Should she ask questions or wait for Jerrell to tell stories? Should she do his laundry or wait for him to run the washer himself? He might be independent now; he might not need her the way he used to.

"What if he doesn't hug you when he gets off the plane?" a neighbor had asked Kaye a few days earlier.

Well, then he won't.

But I'm quite sure he will.

Once she was the mother who couldn't let go. Who wanted to hold her child by her side forever. Who called the school each morning to make sure he'd arrived safely. Who ducked behind a car to watch him walk to the corner store.

But then something happened. Jerrell's grades got bad, his attitude got worse and by sixth grade his mother feared that he was headed for a life whose vices were all too visible in her West Baltimore neighborhood. And then he came home with the brochure for a school in Kenya, a school for seventh- and eighth-grade Baltimore boys in danger of becoming dropouts or worse.

"Ma," he'd said. "I'm going to Africa."

Last September she'd stood trembling at this very same airport, trying not to cry as she said goodbye to her only child. You have to do this, she told herself then. You have to let go.

Now, all these months later, she was not teary, but jittery, her stomach bobbing like the Mylar balloons ("Welcome home!" "I love you!") she'd bought for Jerrell the day before, after she'd mopped the kitchen and vacuumed the carpet and swept trash off the street; after she'd bought chips and made macaroni salad and prayed for no rain. The new bike gleamed in the living room. The new bedroom set was freshly dusted. Polo, the new `D dalmatian puppy, waited in a back room on quivery legs.

At the airport, Kaye's legs quivered, too. The plane had landed and the boys were in customs; any minute they would come through the swinging gray doors.

For months she'd fantasized about running toward her son in slow motion, pushing aside crowds of people -- "Oh, Ma," he'd say, "Don't be embarrassing me" -- but now she stood trapped behind a rail and felt her heart rising into her throat. It was 4: 20 Tuesday afternoon. 4: 30. 4: 35.

At 4: 45 the doors swung open. Out they came: A woman in a black robe, a flight attendant in a red suit, a rolling, endless parade of luggage carts and suitcases, but no boys, no boys, why weren't there any boys?

"Where's my son?" the mother cried.

Then she tried to climb over the railing. Then she gave up and turned to the couple waiting next to her: "They went to Africa for nine months, and now they're coming back home."

"Nine months?" said the man.

"Nine months?" said the woman.

4: 45: "Where is he?"

4: 50: "Where's my baby?"

4: 55: "Where is my son? ... Oh my God ... Here they come. Lord have mercy, they're going to come out one at a time. This is torture ... Here's two of them ... Where's mine? Where's mine? Oh, my God ...Here's some more ... Where's mine? ... Oh, my God, Oh, my God ... Where's ... JERRELL!

Jerrell. Jerrell. Jerrell. Dashiki. Thin. Hair. Glasses.

Hugging.

Hugging.

Hugging.

"Ma, you're fogging up my glasses."

"Lord have mercy, look at you! You're wearing your glasses! Look you! I'm so proud of you! You know we're going to the barbershop, right? ... You look like an African, for real! ... What's up, boy? How was it? You all right? Thirsty? Hungry? ... Here's a comb, comb your hair. You want me to comb it? You want to wear it long, you're going to have to comb it ... "

He combed it. Then he got in the car and told her he wanted to study chemistry. He told her he was "the most famous soccer goalie at the Baraka School." He told her he'd started eating sardines and had spent the night in a Masai village and thought it was funny to see steering wheels on the left side of the car.

What do they speak over there?

Kiswahili.

Say something.

Something.

You ain't changed a bit

She told him he was taking a bath as soon as he got home, and that his pants were going in the trash and that she was making him an appointment with the dentist the next morning. She told him a new woman had moved into the house down the street.

Does she have any daughters?

You're still like that, huh?

They both yawned. Sitting side-by-side in the back seat, they leaned back their heads and closed their eyes. They were scrunched so close that it was hard to tell who was snoring. Kaye, like her son, slept most of the way home; not surprising, when you consider the length of her journey.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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