- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Tears welling in her eyes, Marybeth Saunders glances toward the pair of antique parlor chairs in the back room of her South Bend home. A small fire crackles in the fireplace just behind and Saunders pauses to reflect on the chairs’ past as she talks about their future. Within minutes, the chairs will leave the cozy comfort of Saunders’ home destined for a railcar in Illinois.

Saunders’ eyes are not glistening from tears brought on by the sorrow of parting with a family heirloom. For her, they are tears of relief, of atonement.

“We have been trying for a number of years to figure out how to give these chairs a new home,” Saunders told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1xcRHgY ). “I inherited the chairs a number of years ago and was, as you can imagine, conflicted about having the chairs and their symbology in my family.”

At first glance, the significance of the chairs isn’t apparent. Neither is the painful family history that is the root of Saunders’ tears.

The chairs belonged to her great-great-great-grandparents, who were slave owners and lived on a plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama.

“Today as I was cleaning the chairs to say goodbye to them I was crying and it’s not because of a particular loving attachment to the chairs themselves. It just feels like I’m able to put an end to a really painful part of my family’s history,” Saunders said. “I also wanted these chairs go to a home where people understood the responsibility they had to have these chairs in their home. The chairs, in my opinion, have a painful history. I wanted it to be honored. There is no better place for these chairs.”

After yielding no interest from various museums for taking on the chairs on advice of family Saunders posted an advertisement on Craigslist. It wasn’t long before Ainsley Wonderling, of Lake Villa, Illinois, made contact. Wonderling had recently been enlisted in a volunteer effort to recreate the Abraham Lincoln funeral train in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and the train that brought his body from Washington, D.C., back to Springfield, Illinois.

“I got the sense from talking to her on the phone that it was some kind of atonement for her ancestors,” Wonderling said. “It’s all been serendipity. It was meant to be. They are lovely and they are perfect.”

The volunteers working on the project are recreating the locomotive, funeral car and a passenger car to be part of a reenactment of the funeral train procession this spring. Each detail is being meticulously done to resemble the actual Lincoln funeral train as closely as possible, Wonderling said. Saunders’ chairs will be placed in the funeral car, on either side of where Lincoln’s casket would have been. On the original train, wounded Union soldiers rode on the train, on either side of the fallen president, in similar chairs.

“To me, it’s a generational healing of my family history to be able to have these chairs be in the funeral car, holding up the wounded soldiers,” Saunders said. “All of these connections, it just feels like dominoes falling but in a good way, things coming into place.”

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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