My mother's maiden name is Rinehart. I grew up the youngest Rinehart cousin of a plethora of Rinehart cousins when considering my Mom was one of seven brothers and sisters. Of the brothers and sisters, three settled in my hometown of St. Marys, West Virginia: my Uncle Albert, my Aunt Bonnie and of course, my mother. I was also the youngest by a stretch; the closest to me in age were my cousin LJ (Bonnie's youngest) and Julie (Albert's youngest). Many of my cousins had moved away while I was growing up, to locations including Florida and Illinois. My sisters, who were older than me by more than a decade, were closest to the older siblings in Uncle Albert's family as they were similar in age and therefore classmates as well.
Growing up, it was Uncle Albert's family who largely moved to Florida over the years. I vaguely remember being at their Belmont, West Virginia home when I was young, before they moved away. Despite my fuzzy memories of those youthful days, even then there was something about this branch of the extended Rinehart clan that seemed almost...mythic. Uncle Albert and his boys Albert Wayne, Jerry, Joe and Tom seemed larger than life with personalities to match, while Aunt Carrie was like a goddess with her beautiful blonde hair (as was her daughter Julie) that stood out like sunlight amongst the more brunette shades of the Rinehart women. Already seemingly sun-kissed and super-powered, it was no wonder that many of this Rinehart clan would head to the Sunshine State, where their existence seemed to almost make more sense in a backdrop of brilliant sunsets and crashing ocean waves. This is certainly not to imply that this family was too good for their beloved hometown, though...they were proud of their Mountain State heritage, to be sure.
Throughout my life, I was regaled with stories about the Rinehart boys. Tales included athletic excellence in high school and college as well as some gasp-inducing recounts of some of their wilder days. I would get lost in the riveting retelling of storied careers involving everything from NASA at the time we put a man on the moon to dangerous missions in foreign lands. Tragedy claimed one of the Rinehart boys far too young when Joe was wounded in Vietnam in 1967 and became the first in our county to be a casualty of that war. He died on Memorial Day, while the fatalities of previous wars were being honored.
Joe's tragic loss and the further adventures and exploits of his brothers seemed to elevate them all to a legendary status. I grew up reading comic books about superheroes, but there was a clan of them right in my own family. I talked about them all with an almost hushed reverence; all puffed up with pride that I was even related to these guys. At the same time, when I was around them, I was typically a combination of awe and terror. The fact that I was nervous around them, though, was all on me. Uncle Albert and his boys may have been tough guys, but they were always awesome to me, my sisters and my folks. They also always had that signature Rinehart sense of humor that we all share and we all know can range from the ornery to the deranged, but damn, can it light up a room when its present.
As I had mentioned in previous posts, my cousin Albert Wayne, Uncle Albert's oldest, recently passed away, and three weeks later, Uncle Albert himself died. It was an absolute bracing tragedy for my Aunt Carrie to lose both her beloved husband and her son, but the family surrounded her as expected, and they weathered this as they have everything else: together. There were services for father and son in Florida and this past weekend there was an internment service for Albert Wayne in St. Marys that my sister Shirley and I attended.
Throughout the day and into the evening, I realized what else really set this Rinehart clan apart. We all love our families, but the toughness inherent within Uncle Albert and Aunt Carrie's clan was also apparent in their utterly fierce devotion to each other. I had always admired the lifelong love affair that Uncle Albert and Aunt Carrie enjoyed and I was fortunate to often bear witness to how much Jerry and Marylou continue to cherish each other as they approach a half-century together. This was the first time, though, I really got to see much of the extended family interact and their intense devotion to each other is evident in every generation. I watched as Jerry, who has been in countless death-defying situations during his own career, failed to stop the tears that overcame him as he introduced Al's children and grandchildren at the service. I caught glimpses of their interaction at the burial and the reception and their familial bonds are just inspiring to see. So, tough and bigger than life the Rineharts were, but I think I have figured out their secret weapon: their hearts, which were also bigger than life. Even when, in some cases, those hearts threatened to physically fail them, they seemed to always beat strong and fast for each other. The love and devotion of this family for each other has carried them through so much and it will continue to heal the hurt left in the wake of each loss.
I have written much about that Rinehart reunion growing in the stars and I continue to take solace from the thoughts of how its evolving with each loss we suffer here. Oh, what a grand reunion that one will be....
RIP Uncle Albert and Al, Jr.