Two months ago, Nicole Breazeale filled a box with mementos and inscribed books her late husband loved and put the box on a chair outside her Lexington home. It was the anniversary of his death. Breazeale hoped the box would be used as a free library for her neighborhood, but the box went missing the next day.
The loss of the box spurred thousands of Facebook posts and the offer of a reward from a local sporting goods store, but no leads.
On Thursday, almost two months to the day after the box disappeared, a woman who had never met Breazeale found the box in the living room of a couple she’s acquainted with.
“It was the strangest thing because I knew immediately what it was, but it was just sitting in the corner,” said Michelle Beck, 27, of Lexington, who said she remembered reading about the missing memorial box. Some of the books from the box were lying on a table.
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Beck said she started to ask the couple about the box to try to figure out what they knew.
“At that point I didn’t know if they had taken it purposefully or not,” she said.
The couple told Beck they thought the memorial box was put out as trash and that whoever put it out didn’t want it anymore.
Beck pulled up an article on her phone for the couple. explaining the box’s meaning.
Breazeale’s husband, Phillip Johnson, died of brain cancer in 2015. Friends from around the country sent bumper stickers (Johnson’s car was covered in them) to decorate the box, and Breazeale filled it with books with special meaning to her family.
In some way this has been a tremendous blessing the way this has all gone down.
Box owner Nicole Breazeale
Johnson, a Lexington Catholic High School graduate, used a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia to propose; others were books Johnson read to his 2-year-old son, Alex. The plan was for the books to be loaned or replaced by locals as a “little free library.”
The couple told Beck they don’t follow social media and hadn’t read about the box. They became “very duly embarrassed” and wanted Beck to return the box immediately, she said.
Beck and Breazeale said the couple want to remain anonymous. Breazeale said Saturday she has “zero ill will” toward them and respects their desire to avoid the spotlight. Beck said the couple was happy to hear Breazeale has the box back.
Box in tow, Beck tried to figure out how to contact Breazeale without notifying the media. She said she felt overwhelmed, as if she had a “great responsibility.”
“I was very paranoid that I was going to lose it through, like, completely ridiculous means,” she said. “So I just didn’t want to alert them that we found it and then it, like, go missing again.”
Beck found the number for the husband of Angie Elser, a friend who was quoted in an article about the box. Elser’s husband got a text, missed calls and voicemails about 10 p.m. Thursday.
“He said, ‘Someone has Nicole’s box and she wants you to call her,’” Elser said. “I started freaking out.”
Elser said that in the months since the box was taken, strangers to Breazeale would ask Elser for updates. She said she’d meet people who hadn’t heard the story, and that gave her hope that the box could be found.
“Whether she knows it or not, there were a lot of people who were thinking about her,” Elser said.
Elser said Breazeale was completely shocked on the phone. Then the pair started laughing.
“I had come to terms with the fact that it was never coming back,” Breazeale said. “I had done that emotional work about a month ago.”
Breazeale said she had butterflies in her stomach waiting for Beck to come. Right before Beck arrived, Breazeale texted a photo of Alex, her son, waiting by the window in anticipation.
“I almost lost it at that point,” Beck said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to go over there without crying.”
She said she managed to hold it together while Alex started dumping the books out until she found Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, one of Johnson’s favorite childhood books.
Breazeale said she had explained to her son that the box would never come back, but he was 2, and it wasn’t fresh in his mind. Since the box was taken, she said, her support network and Alex’s were strengthened. She credited that to being open about her grief and the loss of the box.
“We’re in a moment where this country and even our community can sometimes feel very fractured, and people are suffering because of that,” she said. “So I think when you are vulnerable and you do put yourself out there and people have an opportunity to connect with you and connect with each other, … they want that.”
She isn’t sure of the exact number, but Breazeale said people around Lexington and outside the state emailed to say that they were putting up little free libraries, many in Johnson’s honor. The Little Free Library organization sent materials for a library relating to Johnson and brain health that she hasn’t yet figured out where to install.
“In some way, this has been a tremendous blessing the way this has all gone down,” she said.
Breazeale said her husband’s original memorial box will again be put on the lawn April 13, Johnson’s birthday. This time, there will be flowers planted around the box, a new inscription in a Shel Silverstein book for Beck, and a book explaining “the story of the box.”
The box will be on a post this time.