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Book Review - Caroline Clarke's 'Cookie' is stranger than fiction

Book details the reunion of Nat King Cole's daughter and granddaughter

Journalist Caroline Clarke, a longtime fixture at Black Enterprise, the pioneering and historic publication her husband's parents, Earl and Barbara Graves, founded in 1970, has always preferred being in the background. "I'm a very private person. I'm a journalist. I tell other people's stories and I never thought I'd have a story to tell that would be worth a book," explains Clarke, author of Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail. When genetic health concerns prompted her to search for her biological roots, however, Clarke found herself at the center of a story tailored for a Lifetime film or a juicy soap opera story line.

Born in New York City on Christmas Day in 1964 to an unwed mother and later adopted by a loving, black middle-class couple — a schoolteacher and a college professor — Clarke comes from an era when society shamed such women. The shaming was so pervasive that even those of means were often forced by their families to give up their child for adoption. So, in that respect, her story is very typical. At age 37, when Clarke set out on this journey, however, she discovered details that made truth stranger than fiction: Her biological mother turned out to be Carole "Cookie" Cole whom legendary entertainer Nat King Cole and his wife, Maria, adopted.

As Clarke details in Postcards from Cookie, she was in disbelief learning that she came from a wealthy biological background, especially during a time when lavish parties, live-in nannies, chauffeurs, and other riches were uncommon among most African-Americans. It was also uncustomary then for many black people to give up their children to strangers and not family members. But the happily married mother of two encountered other details far more surprising than that.

At Smith College, Clarke started a friendship with Timolin Cole, aka Timmie, her biological mother's younger sister who attended neighboring Amherst College. At the time Clarke's journey to find her birth mother, Cookie, began, that friendship had already spanned roughly 20 years. More incredulous, Cookie and Timmie's mother, Maria, Clarke's grandmother, probably realized decades before at a sleepover at the family's Boston home who she was and never told a soul.

Clarke, who learned of her adoption at an early age from her adoptive parents, never thought she wanted to know her birth mother. After all, her life as a wife and mother of two, with a fulfilling career to boot, was a generally happy one. "What I've discovered since is that I needed to know and I really didn't think I did because I was basically fine and I think most adoptees are," she says.

That sense of discovery, of learning how much of her life was due to nature, i.e., the love of words and ice skating she shares with her biological mother, Cookie, as everyone called her, captivates. As the East Coast-based Clarke forged a bond with her West Coast-based mother largely through correspondence, universal questions about destiny, love, and the miracle of life also emerged. And, since Clarke's biological father, who never knew of her birth, was white, the book delves into questions of race and identity. As helpful as this story is to others, it still remains very personal to Clarke.

"I wish Cookie and I had more time," Clarke says of her mother, who passed away May 19, 2009, seven years after they discovered each other. "She was such a phenomenal person and she added so much to my life and I know I did to hers also. And we had so much more to say to each other and be together and discover about each other and experience together, but I'm glad I was grown and I think the timing for her was good, too. She was on solid ground, too."

Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail by Caroline Clarke. HarperCollins. $24.99. 320 pp.

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