Opinion: So help me, Hannah

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Commentary by Ward Degler

When my dad would vow he’d get something done, he would end with, “So help me, Hannah.” When I was a kid, I thought he was referring to his Aunt Hannah who, with her husband Claude, ran a gas station in Shawnee, Okla.

According to Dad, Aunt Hannah was a sort of den mother to much of the town of Shawnee. In addition to running the cash register at the gas station, she had tucked away what she called an accommodation shelf in one corner of the office. There, in addition to 10 gallons of ethyl from the gas station side of things, you could buy a loaf of bread, a bottle of Karo syrup, a box of Kleenex, a roll of toilet paper, a package of faucet washers or a jar of pickled beets from Hannah’s own abundant garden.

Folks in Shawnee held that Hannah was pretty much the go-to person for any last-minute thing you might need.

“Strictly for emergencies,” Hannah would say.

Grocery stores needed a special license back then, and Hannah didn’t have one. She claimed her accommodation shelf was there just to help out anyone who couldn’t get to the A&P before it closed at 6 p.m. The local licensing folks either agreed with her or turned a blind eye.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered, “So help me, Hannah” might have another source. There was the Hannah of the book of Samuel in the Old Testament, of course, but it’s doubtful that anyone serving Eli or the temple back then would call on the mother of the prophet for help. Particularly when by all accounts she couldn’t even help herself until God finally granted her a child.

A more likely source came out of New England’s whaling industry, where a worthless seaman would be dismissed as, “not even Hannah Cook.” The actual phrase was, “not even a hand or a cook,” meaning the man wasn’t competent do the work of a deckhand, or even work in the galley as a cook. Fanciful, I agree, but just the kind of story New England seafaring men liked to tell.

As for Aunt Hannah, Dad said she kept her side of the business going even after Claude died. She closed the gas station, of course, but simply moved her accommodation shelf to her front porch at the edge of town. Even after a new supermarket showed up and stayed open until late at night, folks still dropped by to pick up a loaf of bread from Hannah’s accommodation shelf.

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