An award-winning journalist adopted as an infant didn't intend to find out who gave her up, but when she did, she learned she was already a friend of a family with a very famous member.
Caroline Clarke was born on Christmas Day 1964 in New York City to a 20-year-old woman and was adopted three days later by teachers Vera and Robert Clark. They loved her dearly, and she loved them.
Clarke learned about her adoption at 7, and as she grew up, her parents shared what they knew about her biological mother, who was unmarried when she became pregnant.
“I knew she had been sent to New York to, sort of, be hidden away so that people wouldn't know she was pregnant,” Clarke said.
Clarke grew up in a house filled with books and music, especially that of her dad's favorite, the late, great Nat King Cole.
“I knew every lyric to every song, even the obscure ones,” Clarke said.
By chance she met the singer's twins, Casey and Timolin, through her boyfriend when she was at Smith College in Massachusetts.
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“We went to a party at Amherst and my boyfriend introduced me to all of his friends there,” Clarke said. “One of them, his best friend’s girlfriend actually, was Timolin Cole.”
When Timolin's older sister Natalie Cole was performing in Boston, Clarke was invited to go, and they stayed with Timolin's mother, who had a residence there.
“She seemed to take a special curiosity in me,” Clarke said. “She asked me where I was born in New York, what hospital, which is kind of an odd question. She knew I was born on Christmas Day; she asked about that.”
Turns out Timolin Cole had wondered whether Clarke was her sister Cookie's daughter, Clarke said.
Clarke had seen old pictures of Maria and Nat King Cole, their daughters Cookie and Natalie often with them. The photos showed the privileged life his talent afforded them.
Nat King Cole’s music remained a favorite for Clarke even after she grew up, married and began having children.
“When my children were small, I used to sing them to sleep with Nat King Cole songs,” she said.
Clarke, whose career spanned television, digital and print media, said her “reporter trained” determination made her really try to get to the bottom of the story about her birth family.
Having children made her anxious to know more of her own DNA, and she sought medical history from the agency from which she was adopted. She learned that there were no significant medical issues, but New York’s Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency gave her some social history of the birth mother.
“The thing that stuck with me the most was the description of her family at the time I was born, they were clearly wealthy people,” Clarke said.
She understood her mother was an orphan adopted by her aunt into a prominent African-American family, and she imagined they were concerned for the family image.
She thought maybe the birth mother had made up the stories of finishing school and debutante parties, but if they were true, the family shouldn't be hard to identify.
“The report said that the sister was musically gifted,” Clarke said. “She had a brother who was adopted. There was a lot of space between the oldest, who was my mother, and the youngest who were twins and close in age to me. And I'm cranking on this family that was so unique, and boom, it just hits me. I know these people. I know exactly who it is. It was Timolin. She was my friend for 20 years by then. Timolin and Casey and Kelly and Natalie and Cookie.”
She never thought it could possibly be a family she already knew. Neither she, nor they, had any idea of the connection beyond their genuine friendship.
She called her parents, Vera and Robert Clarke, to ask their advice, and they encouraged her to go forward.
“So ultimately I picked up the phone and I called Cookie,” Clarke said.
Prepared for rejection, she braced herself to say she was sorry for the mistake.
“Before I could say it, she cut me off and said, 'This means everything to me,’” Clarke said.
Nat King Cole died at 45 years old, less than two months after Clarke’s birth.
“The devastation for Cookie is that she gave me up largely to protect the reputation of her father, who then died,” Clarke said. “So there was no reputation to protect, and it was too late to go back for me. It was too late to go back, those papers were signed.”
In her book "Postcards From Cookie," Clarke chronicles her life, tracing a journey she never intended to take to a place she didn't want to go. She ends up finding her birth family in a scenario she describes as “like lightning striking.”
The book describes how she tried to learn more about her original family medical history but ended up learning some of the birth mother’s background as well.
Her reporter training at Columbia University’s School of Journalism pushed her forward, even when she wasn’t certain where it would lead.
“I’m a reporter, I need answers … that’s why I’m a reporter," Clarke said. "I don't like question marks. I’ll take the worst answer in the world over not knowing.”
While her adoptive mother always said how lucky they were to get Caroline, as a child growing up in a home full of love, she feels to this day she was the lucky one.
Clarke received a Star of Adoption Award last month from the Center for Adoption Services and Education in Burtonsville, Maryland.