Day of the Dead: Memories of my Grandmother Kinney

Today is the first day of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and is the third in my series about the celebration. The holiday focuses on remembering one’s dead loved ones, particularly by building private altars (“ofrendas”) in homes honoring the dead. The Mexican tradition includes placing sugar skulls, marigolds, and favorite foods and drinks of one’s ancestor on an altar or at the grave.

Eleanora B. Kinney, 1914 – 1999

Grandma working at Johns Hopkins

Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day

Grandma Kinney and her sister, Lucille, 1996

I loved to visit my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. Both Grandma and Grandad were great grandparents, in that indulgent, doting way. One of my first stops in their house was the drawer in the buffet that Grandma kept stocked with candy. I remember licorice, butter mints, and chocolate bars just waiting to be eaten. We didn’t have much candy in our house so it was fun to have a drawer FULL of sweets!

My grandmother  was a typical home cook, I imagine, in the forties and fifties. We were occastionally there for Sunday dinner, which would likely be a roast beef (overcooked by today’s standards) or ham. She was certainly not a gourmet cook but there are some things she did really well. Her homemade crab cakes were amazing. She made them with fresh blue crabs we’d catch in the Chesapeake by hanging pieces of chicken off my great aunt’s dock. She also just cooked up a bunch of crabs sometimes, with potaotes and corn.

Where she excelled was baking, particularly at the holidays. She baked spritz cookies, which my mom then taught us kids to bake. It’s still one of our traditions – we’ll call or email each other with complaints about sticky dough or other spritz cookie travails. Grandma made a pie crust with cooking oil that was really good; I haven’t quite perfected it but keep trying. One of my favorite recipes is her chocolate pecan cookies, which are sort of like Mexican wedding cakes/pecan sandies/sand dollars with cocoa added. I’ll share the recipe in a post closer to the holidays.


She made me cream cheese and olive sandwiches, which I still make once in a while for nostalgia’s sake. That’s one of the great things about grandparents – they can make their grandchildren feel beloved and special without all the discipline parents have to deal with. I doubt my mother would have had the patience to chop up olives in neat little slices for our sandwiches.

When I knew her, Grandma usually dressed in solid slacks and a print blouse. She was fond of Vera prints, and was apparently a bit of a fashion plate in her younger days. She was not sentimental about stuff, so whatever pretty items she wore in youth were long gone by the time I could have worn them. She wore some nice rhinestone jewelry at some point, but then in the 1970s took lots of it apart to glue onto a piece of framed green velvet in the shape of a Christmas tree.

She was always the one to keep us in touch with other members of the family. I spent time with both her sisters, and got to see the house in Maryland they were all born in. She loved to play cards with her friends and one of my treasures is a well used deck of cards we found on the coffee table after she died.

Grandma was a worrier. She’d fret over things I never even noticed. She worried about her daughters, particularly my mom, who had no man to look after her. (Big generational difference, yes?)

On her ofrenda, I’d leave a deck of cards, some sparkly costume jewelry, her spritz cookie gun, a bottle of Shalimar, marigolds, roses, and a glass of scotch. She loved family gatherings, so I’d try to plan a little picnic around her grave. I really don’t know what HER favorite foods were because she spent a lot of time cooking favorites for others.

What traits might I have gotten from her? Her affectionate nature, her enjoyment of family, her love of rhinestone jewelry, her practical nature, her thin, curly hair, and her easy smile. I miss her.


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