My family first made landfall in North America in the 1730s. They soon settled in Sumter County, South Carolina and very quickly established themselves there. Ever since I was a little girl, I have devoured stories of ancestors' exploits and old stately family estates long lost to time.
I believe that we walk between the siren songs of two influences in our lives - one from our soul that has seen many lives before and the other from our blood that speaks with the voices of our ancestors. I have always felt a very strong connection to that side of my family even though death and distance have kept me physically apart from practically all but my mother. Their pictures adorn my walls and the stories of their lives adorn my heart and imagination. In "Coming to Say Goodbye," I wrote of a dream I had of a family plantation and the connection it made with me - well, there is one remaining vestige of that long lost manse, the family church. Today it stands as "Salem Black River Church" - an imposing neoclassical edifice constructed in 1846. If you are curious, here is a link to an excellent article giving you more details on the structure itself and some lovely pictures inside and out, though none truly capture the imposing impression the building gives to one standing in its shadow (https://www.scpictureproject.org/sumter-county/salem-black-river-church.html/comment-page-1/?unapproved=1281326&moderation-hash=76ff6e0ed9e2123fc5dd775e395b3cf0#comment-1281326).
I first visited with my husband in May of 2016. I was thirty years old and here was my first time finally setting foot on the earth where my family as I know it began. I asked him to wait in the car for ten minutes to give me a few moments alone to see the place for myself. As I exited the car, I can't really explain the feelings that swept over me but to say that they were not entirely my own. We had parked in the small circular drive just before the church and were the only ones there - likely the only people around for several miles. Slowly, I approached the massive white columns of the porch taking it all in as I went. The feeling of being so small but welcome and safe. I knew I didn't have long on my own, so I continued around back to the iron gates of the cemetery - within lay generation after generation of my family. The moment I stepped inside, it felt exactly as though I was walking into a room full of people who suddenly stop talking and look in your direction. For a moment, my vision blurred, then cleared but the feeling did not fade. So I started talking to them. I told them everything I could think of about my life and the people and things that matter to me. I could feel them listening. At last, I found the graves of my great great grandparents. Words left me and all I could do was lay hands on their stones and cry. Not exactly tears of sadness but more of homecoming or reunion. All too soon, my ten minutes were up (I couldn't ask him to sit about for too long) - he joined me in the cemetery and we poured out toasts to each of my ancestors. After exploring the site for as long as our schedule would allow, I finally and reluctantly went on my way.
This past May (2019), I was able to make a second visit. It was a Sunday so I had hoped to catch a service as I would dearly love to get to know the congregation - likely I have relatives amongst them - but we were not so lucky. Still, it was wonderful to be back again - to feel so close to the spirits of my family. This time, however, when I approached the cemetery, I noticed to my dismay, a large padlocked chain binding the gates. I was crestfallen to have come all this way (it's a long drive from Virginia) only to be turned away. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving without visiting them. So, in a moment of desperation, I circled the old wrought iron fence knowing it was old and bound to have a chink somewhere. Sure enough, I found a place where a small depression in the ground had compromised its footing creating a gap just wide enough for me to squeeze through. Mind you, I DO NOT advocate trespassing in any situation - especially not on sacred ground - but this was an exception in my book and I certainly meant no disrespect. However, the moment I set foot inside the burial ground on the other side of that fence, I was beset by swarms of biting flies. Their numbers were staggering. I had been wearing a wide brimmed hat at the time and had to rip it off as they had gotten up under it and were biting my scalp through my hair. They were in my face, on my arms and legs - everywhere! And they were positively relentless. I was barely able to see to make my way to my great great grandparents stones, press my fingers to my lips to leave a kiss on their markers and a small stone before rushing back out the way I had come without stopping to pay any homage to any other of my relatives. The moment I was on the other side of the fence, the flies were gone.
It seemed very clear that the swarms were protecting the cemetery though I couldn't fathom why they wished to protect against me. Nor could I understand why their protection was necessary now when it hadn't been before. On my return home, I did a little web searching hoping to find contact information as my husband and I hope to return in the fall to spend some time cleaning gravestones. In my search, I found an article that made my blood boil - it seems that in 2017, a pack of miscreants from the nearby base decided it would be a hoot and a holler to vandalize the church; spray painting satanic symbols all over its graceful white columns and kicking in the ancient doors. (Link to the story: http://www.newsandpress.net/salem-black-river-presbyterian-vandalism/ and with images https://tinyurl.com/y2kulxoo) Fortunately, they were caught and summarily charged. But, suddenly the means both mortal and otherwise to protect the vicinity made sense.
I found blog entries asserting the site to be haunted by a 'belle' and a 'sad boy.' I certainly saw nothing of the sort on my visits. Though I do feel a certain sense of protectiveness about them - the idea of folks traipsing through there 'hunting' them is uncommonly dismaying to me - for, if they are there, they are my people - their sorrows are their own and not the stuff of spectacle. It has given me a different perspective on ghost hunting in general and, though I have yet to participate in one myself, I likely won't in future.