After her father died when she was just 5 years old, Nicole Johnson would curl up with the special blanket she was given as a toddler and listen to her mother’s friends console the new widow over the phone into the late night hours.
“I would sleep on the floor or near her using my blanky as a pillow,” she recalled in an interview Thursday.
Her blanket, she said, was there to comfort her no matter what. Through breakups and awkward adolescence—she even wore it as a scarf at times throughout high school.
“Most people couldn't tell the difference,” she said.
But while transferring from the Brown to the Red Line at the Belmont CTA station shortly after noon Thursday, Johnson lost what she had held so dearly. The now 25-year-old clinical psychology doctoral candidate brought her childhood treasure to work with her that day. She said it helps her cope with the anxiety-inducing clinical work.
“I bring my blanky for comfort. I can have it in my lap while I eat lunch or type paperwork,” she explained, but noted she doesn’t typically bring it to work. “I'm so angry with myself for packing it today.”
Johnson said the tattered blanket that’s endured so much with her was put in a greenish-blue bag with tied drawstrings she left under a folding handicap seat on the train—near the middle car, she thinks. The bag is unique-looking, she said, with white lettering.
“It's sort of like a reusable bag,” she said. “My grandma got it at some local art store.”
Brian Steele, a spokesman for the Chicago Transit Authority, said any item found on a bus or train is turned in at a garage or rail terminal. The CTA also has a lost and found page on its website.
“We certainly hope the keepsake finds its way back to its owner,” Steele said.
Johnson said she’s called the CTA many times to no avail—the blanket has yet to have been found.
“I panicked right away and Googled ‘lost and found CTA’ on my phone,” she said. “I was having a hard time typing because I (was) shaking a bit.”
She said the CTA was very responsive and kind, but that didn’t stop her from crying during the remaining 25-minute commute.
“It's odd to make this comparison, but it feels like I just found out a friend has died,” she said.
In its absence, Johnson tries to remember how her blanky feels and and to recall its scent.
"It's like if the feeling of comfort were a smell," she said.
Johonson's mother, Barbara, who lives in North Dakota, said the childhood momento has always been important to Nicole.
“You have no idea how much this blanky means to her,” Barbara said. “It’s kind of a secure, calming thing.”
In academia, there have been many studies on childhood and adulthood attachment to objects like Johnson’s blanket. Many relate that connection to the feeling of security or comfort in the wake of a childhood trauma.
“As our lives unfold, our things embody our sense of self-hood and identity still further, becoming external receptacles for our memories, relationships and travels,” British psychologist Christian Jarret writes in “The Psychology of Stuff and Things.”
Johnson and her mother said she always took good care of the blanket—she even started handwashing it while she was in college. She keeps it in her carry-on when flying “so that I know where it’s at.”
Now that irreplaceable totem of her earliest years is missing—tucked into a bag with her lunch and left on an “El” car.
“It feels terrible, and I don't know what life will be like without it,” she said.
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