By all accounts, Caroline Clarke ’85 had a happy childhood. Though she learned at a fairly young age that she had been adopted, she had little desire to know the identity of her birth parents.
Then, in 2002, some health issues prompted Clarke, a mother of two, to start digging into her past. What she discovered could have served as the plot for a big-screen drama. Instead, Clarke, a journalist, turned her tale into a moving memoir, Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail.
By the time Clarke put the pieces of the puzzle together, she discovered that her birth mother was Carole (Cookie) Cole, oldest daughter of iconic crooner Nat King Cole. Clarke already knew Cookie as the sister of Amherst College student Timmie Cole—a good friend of Clarke’s since her days at Smith.
In her book, Clarke, who is executive content producer at Black Enterprise and host of “Black Enterprise Business Report,” writes about balancing her professional and personal life, while maneuvering the emotional minefield of her adoptive parents’ feelings and confronting her newfound family’s long-suppressed secrets.
Postcards from Cookie was published in 2014 by Harper Collins to critical acclaim. Ebony called it “riveting,” while Kirkus Reviews described it as a “gripping” read.
Here, Clarke talks about the lessons offered by her life-changing experience of searching for her birth mother.
Why did you decide to write this book?
“In discovering my birth mother the way I did—without searching for her, with very little effort on my part at all—I felt that I’d been handed this extraordinary gift. I felt moved to share it, as if it was what I was meant to do. I also relished the idea of writing a tribute to all of my parents—Cookie as well as Vera and Robert Clarke, who raised me. My life is the sum total of what they all put into me.”
Explain the title.
“Cookie and I were separated by 3,000 miles, so much of our relationship was forged through the mail—all types. In our first phone conversation, she mentioned her affection for postcards, which I soon came to understand. She sent hundreds over the years, with me responding in kind. Her incredible knack for making something extraordinary out of these little open-faced cards was part of what made me fall under her spell. She made it almost an art form.”
How did your adoptive family react to the situation?
“They were wholly supportive of my pursuing a relationship with Cookie. They opened their arms wide and let me go. As a parent myself, the thought of that singular act of ultimate love still takes my breath away.”
What have you learned from your relationship with Cookie?
“I learned about the value of remaining open to what life has in store for you. I was always a planner; very rooted in my sense of measured control. Cookie changed all of that for me, in a good way. I also learned about the power of forgiveness, something I had not been good at most of my life. I found a quote recently: ‘Let go, or be dragged.’ It’s my new mantra. Cookie’s life was a testament to its wisdom.”
What is your relationship with Timmie and other members of your birth family today?
“My brothers and I live on opposite coasts so we rarely see each other but are in steady contact. Natalie [Cole] travels to New York a lot, and we have become very close. Timmie [Cole] and I have a loving relationship again after years of being strained.”
You found out that you were biracial well before you met Cookie. What was your reaction?
“I grew up in a very proud black family, steeped in black history. Our large extended family gave me roots and a firm foundation on which to stand. Even after learning I was adopted, knowing for sure that I was the same race as my [adoptive] parents was comforting. So finding out I was biologically biracial was jarring, to say the least. I was in my mid-20s and I wanted to be what I’d always been in my own mind. I didn’t want that to change. That was almost 25 years ago. My feelings have evolved. I accept that I am what I am genetically. Mixed-race is such a common reality now; the culture has evolved, which helps. But I still identify as African American.”
You write about your adoptive father being a big fan of the music of your birth grandfather, Nat King Cole, and how you grew up with it.
“I grew up with Nat King Cole, in a sense. His music was ever present in our house in the Bronx. I knew almost every lyric to every song. Finding Cookie didn’t make me love that music any more. It just made me marvel that we were related. His music is still everywhere! A week doesn’t go by that I don’t hear his voice being piped through a coffee shop or restaurant, an elevator or mall. Every time I do, I just smile—still amazed, and thankful.”