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Old Hickory sparks memories of old friends

Like most women who favor sentiment over style, my closet is a collection of dated garments that serve as a hanging timeline to my adult life. Some signify hope, as in the body I once had and might one day have again (jeans from high school); some mark my true entrance into adulthood (blue interview suit; maternity clothes); and all have some meaning beyond function. I even have the outfit worn on a blind date with the man I would later marry.

Yet, if I were to rank these trappings in terms of importance, there is one that would emerge the winner. If the "What Not to Wear" hosts were to berate and banish the entire contents of my closet, this is the one garment I would beg them to spare: the Hickory.

The Hickory was a heavy cotton pullover shirt that I snagged from my big brother's closet in my senior year of high school and wore throughout college. The most distinctive feature was the print, which was the same stripe you'd see on an old train engineer's cap: alternate lines of navy and gray ("Hickory," I've since learned, is the name for that print).

Other details included two chest pockets and a half-zipper. If I chose to wear it without pants, say, around the house, it looked like a masculine nightgown. It was boxy and heavy and probably the most unflattering article of clothing I have ever owned. And yet, I still have it.

Now, the type of woman who wears a Hickory is either really secure with herself or really insecure with herself, but certainly no slave to fashion. I favor comfort and a statement of individuality; the Hickory provided both. And in college, it was safe (perhaps necessary) to wear what you felt represented you. There was no dress code, no standard.

Instead, you could both distinguish and define yourself by your wardrobe; you could set yourself apart, only to align yourself with other like-minded comrades (like Jim, who complimented my "Hickory" every time I wore it, which was probably too often). Jim was a close friend in college, a burly, brotherly type who still had the sensitivity to notice what you were wearing, if your hair was different, if you were hiding sadness …

The Hickory, I suppose, was a symbol of our camaraderie. We shared a small circle of friends, but to me, Jim was the anchor – a steady, calm presence against the pace of a crowded campus. He also freely admitted his faults, his insecurities, and that made him not only likable, but also trustworthy. He was uncomplicated and sunny. He was loyal and reliable. He was a true friend.

Jim used to joke (or perhaps warn) that our friendship would inevitably be reduced to an annual, perfunctory Christmas card. And while that proved to be a prophetic notion for a few years after college, I'm sad to say that we no longer extend that courtesy. I wonder if that stalemate exists because of a fear that the other has changed? Or maybe it's the degree of change that we fear. After 20 years, an attempt to revive the friendship might be disappointing – perhaps it is best kept preserved within our memories.

Our true friends orient us in the maze of the world; they point us home and are there to collect us. I accept and even take a little pride in the fact that mine are few and far between (anything of value is). I simply want to gaze out into the big, vast (sometimes unfriendly) universe and see them appear, reliably and unmistakably, those shining stars from so long ago.

I still have the Hickory, but I don't wear it. Unlike my other wardrobe artifacts, this one does still fit, and yet, I would rather reminisce than relive what it symbolizes: a time when I was accepted and understood, when it was easy to develop friendships of the transcendent and true variety.

I keep the Hickory, I suppose, to remind myself that I once had such friendships. And as long as I hang on to it, I still do.