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So what's in 7 digits? A lifetime

From at least the 1960s until 2004, the roster of residents at the big red house on Twyla Place in the Town of Tonawanda changed with births, marriage, divorce and death.

In all that time, one thing never changed: the phone number.

It's one of the wonderful peculiarities of life in Western New York that many of us belong to families like mine, ones that have been here for so long that we can develop an emotional attachment to seven digits.

The thought never occurred to me until my former neighbor Bill O'Brian said so in an eloquent and touching e-mail about his phone number and his mom.

There's nothing special about phone numbers now because we have so many of them, and so many other ways to communicate. And cell phone numbers say nothing about where you live. That's not so with land lines. A 992 prefix means Eden. Lockport is 433 or 434.

In my neighborhood, everyone's number started with 87, including the O'Brians'.

Rita and William O'Brian moved onto Twyla in 1953, the same year my grandparents moved into the aforementioned red house. Their son Bill is the oldest of the four kids. We knew them well, as happens when people live a few doors away for decades. They had two Courier-Express routes, which meant that their house was marked by a pair of green wooden newspaper boxes by the curb. My brother and I used to deliver Sunday papers with Hugh O'Brian before taking over his route a couple of years later -- thus allowing me to say I got my start in the newspaper business when I was 8.

Bill also never really got out of newspapers, working across the country -- including two years at the Courier -- and then at the Washington Post, which is how he ended up in Virginia. His sister is still in the area, but his two brothers, Hugh and John, live in Europe.

"So we called home a lot, from all points on the planet, and whenever we did, we dialed 716-873-XXXX," he wrote, using the X's for privacy.

Their father died 21 years ago, but Mrs. O'Brian stayed in their house. Health problems forced a move to Clarence last year. That meant her new number would be 741-XXXX, and 873-XXXX would belong either to someone else or to history.

"Kind of sad," Bill's sister, Ann Marie, wrote in an e-mail to her brothers.

Bill found the change "traumatic," likening it to an intruder entering his family's collective life.

"We had talked to friends, girlfriends and boyfriends on that land-line number for hours on end as teens," he wrote.

"I tried to laugh it off, joking that we should ask Verizon to retire the number. But living without 716-873-XXXX was a major adjustment. And not just for our family; Mom has lived in WNY her entire life. She went to Sacred Heart Academy and Buffalo State. She has been an engaged parishioner at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Kenmore since the 1950s, and she taught in the Ken-Ton schools as a regular substitute from the '60s until last June. She has nine decades worth of friends in Buffalo who know 716-873-XXXX."

Another turn in her health led Mrs. O'Brian to an assisted-living facility in the Town of Tonawanda, which meant she needed another new phone number. Ann Marie wondered if her old one was still available. Hugh found out that it was.

"Mom has her number -- our number -- back," Bill wrote.

I called the number I always knew as the O'Brians' last week. After a couple of rings, I heard Mrs. O'Brian's very familiar voice on the other end.

It might be the only time in my life that I got choked up just because someone picked up a telephone and said, "Hello?"


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