12/08/2013 01:29 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

Memories of Meeting Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's iconic smile -- that broad, generous grin --- is forever embedded in my mind, a memory I can pluck like a familiar hand-on-your-shoulder, offering comfort during this tremendous loss. I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Mandela in 1994 in my homeland of South Africa, days before the historic elections. The journey leading to that meeting was a long one, a circle, a return to my childhood.

In the 1960s, as a young girl growing up in Johannesburg, the daughter of white, Jewish anti-Apartheid activist parents, I witnessed the separation and hatred that defined Apartheid in daily life. My parents, Joel and Jeanette Carlson, taught by example: My mother was an active leader in the all white women's anti-Apartheid group, The Black Sash. My father, who died in 2001, was a civil rights lawyer in a country without civil rights. He attended law school with Nelson Mandela, represented him on a few occasions and was a longtime lawyer for his former wife Winnie Mandela.

It was that 1994 moment with Nelson Mandela -- and his brief words with my father that remain with me, a testament to Mandela's gift. Nelson Mandela's legacy of forgiveness, acceptance, dignity and determination were demonstrated in large and small ways. As President Obama said upon Mr. Mandela's passing, the man they called Madiba set an example to make decisions "guided not by hate but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can make.'' My father and I were very fortunate to be the recipient of this tremendous gift in a deeply personal way.

My memories of South Africa are those of a child afraid and scared for how those living apart from us by night, but serving us our morning tea, would survive. I remember asking my parents lots of questions about the "kwela, kwela trucks," the police vehicles that rounded up black men off the streets. I would see them pass by our house on 13 African Street in Johannesburg. At a young age, I worried about those men -- gardeners, cooks and cleaners -- whom we were taught to hate, to rule, to subject and subvert. How would they endure after the Kwela trucks had collected them and rolled down the heavy door, shutting them from sight and sound? I knew early on to fear and mistrust the police. They were those unfriendly officers who walked through our house after my father's car was firebombed in the night.

In 1971, my parents were planning something ominous. I was only eight, but I saw by the way they walked together in the evenings, huddled conspiratorially, talking quietly so they wouldn't be heard by the security police, who had planted listening devices throughout our house on that morning when they came to inspect the car bomb. It was understood in the activist community that conversations were recorded and monitored by police.

The South African government-run newspapers labeled my father a "terrorist lawyer." My father had unraveled the government's migrant labor system, won a pivotal case for 37 Namibian prisoners fighting for their country's independence. He had won the release of numerous woman prisoners, including Winnie Mandela. He had stirred the support of American President John F. Kennedy.
Officials revoked his passport, forcing him to flee illegally. I remember the day he left without us. I watched him step through the airport security gate, his six-foot tall frame, his once flame-red hair a glistening silver, his green eyes never looked back to see a little girl, her hands cupped against the glass, eyes peeled for signs of danger. His broad-shoulders carried so much as he stepped alone out of the country, forever.

Though my mother and siblings joined him weeks later, it seemed like months to me. We lived in New York City briefly with another exiled South African family, but my father never felt united. The life that followed was filled with the self-imposed remorse and regret of a survivor. He never forgave himself for fleeing or accepted that his decision was the right one at the time.

In 1994, more than two decades later, South Africa held its first democratic election. I was a reporter for The Hartford Courant, the largest newspaper in Connecticut, which sent me back to write our family's story, the story of an exile, returning for the first time. My father resisted my requests, anxious that my reporting would reveal his deepest fear: that fleeing his homeland was a cowardly act and that by leaving his practice and passion, he had relinquished his place in history. Yet he was torn. He wanted to vote in his country's first free elections and see some of his former clients ascend to leadership roles. He talked to former colleagues at the United Nations, where he worked when he first arrived, and secured a position as a United Nations election observer.

My mother had no interest in returning, even briefly. "I put that part of my life behind me, happily," she said in explaining her decision years later. "It was so disgusting to live in that kind of environment where people were treated so badly. I had no intention of revisiting that."

In Cape Town where we were staying with my aunt, she mentioned that Mr. Mandela would be speaking at her synagogue after morning prayers. After all, there were members of the Jewish community, such as my dad, who had supported him long before it was a popular position. The two of us walked together to services and I could feel his tension. He was sure no one would remember his contributions, or worse, would scorn him for abandoning his country.

Chief Rabbi C. Harris spoke of Robben Island and raised the question many had been thinking since Mr. Mandela's release: How could he have survived 27 years in prison for the "crime" of wanting a political voice and leave without any bitterness? Mr. Mandela, speaking in a raspy voice from a leftover cold, thanked the congregants for their commitment to their country, for their faith in his leadership. Afterwards, he held a private reception.

Perhaps because I had spent a lifetime growing up under my father's pall of doubt, I was stunned by Mr. Mandela's gracious greeting of my father. As we neared the crowd of well-wishers, Mr. Mandela noticed my father and extended his arms. He flashed that radiant smile, his eyes narrowing, almost closed, showing no judgment, no reckoning. My father approached him and grabbed his hands in a firm handshake. Still cupping my father's two hands in his own, Mr. Mandela pulled him in close and uttered the words that have carried me through the years, lifting all doubt: "Joel, you got out in time,'' he said, in a confident, measured voice. "You did well. They would have got you."

How did he know that these words would be the balm to my father's burden, and my own?
My father shook and cried. I excitedly tugged on his suit. He introduced me and I nervously scanned my brain for something profound to say when the words tumbled out: "I hope your cold gets better."

"Thank you," he said, nodding to me. "It will."

A week later, my father and I were seated among select invited guests at the inauguration of President Mandela. As he heard Mr. Mandela again address the sacrifices made by many, including those who fled, my father hung his head and wiped his eyes.

"We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free,'' he said.
To my father, who passed away from leukemia the day after Thanksgiving, 2001, and Mr. Mandela, I pray that you rest in peace. I thank you for sacrificing so much so that those living may find peace, in many ways.

Meredith Carlson Daly is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring.