Stanley isn’t really my buddy. We’ve never met, and we probably never will. He died 74 years before I was born, fighting for the Allies at Vimy Ridge in northern France. Despite our enormous age difference, and our poles-apart planes of existence, Stanley and I share a strange connection. Or at least, I seem to think so.
I met Stanley Cornick — or at least, his grave — in late August of 2014. I came across him quite accidentally, seeking shade on a hot, sunny day.
Sitting in the Forest Road Anglican Cemetery alone, I took notice of the faded letters on the headstone in front of me. “In Loving Memory of Pte. Stanley Cornick, No. 208440, 97th Royal Canadian Regt. Killed in action at Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917. Aged 22 years and 11 months.”
I stopped reading there, dumbfounded.
At that exact moment, I was also 22 years and 11 months old.
Instead of fighting in a war, however, I was leisurely puffing on a cigarette and hiding from the sunshine. I felt overwhelmed by this strange coincidence, so I left, deciding to come back when my head was a little more clear.
During the next couple of weeks, I visited Stanley’s grave whenever I could find an excuse to take the long cut through the graveyard. It felt so strange and almost cruel, as I had a general certainty that I would make it to my 23rd birthday.
I often wondered if Stanley ever imagined that he wouldn’t.
After I turned 23, I visited him again, with two cans of Black Horse. Sipping on mine, I poured his out, promising him that my 23rd year of life was dedicated to him.
My visits decreased over the winter, but I was back in the spring to say hello.
On Regatta Day, my hangover Indian food was shared with Stanley.
One afternoon, his resting place became my resting place, as I catnapped in the sun. He’s even met some of my friends, dragged to the graveyard by my over-excited self.
I’ve received a lot of weird looks from passersby during my visits with Stanley over the past few years.
I get it — there’s definitely something off-putting about a tattooed redhead in a leather biker jacket reclining on a 100-year-old grave. It doesn’t bother me, though.
Hanging out in graveyards has never weirded me out — if visiting the dead is discouraged, why use beautiful pieces of land to preserve their memory?
Stanley’s memory has definitely been preserved, even if it is living on through a strange young woman he never knew.
This year, however, on March 16, Stanley Cornick became more real and alive than he has been since 1917.
I was once again taking my usual route through the graveyard. With a severe windstorm just having passed through, I noticed a pile of displaced fake flowers tangled up in the chain-link fence at the bottom of the cemetery.
Deciding most of these flowers were too lovely to lie abandoned, I opted to distribute them amongst the many unadorned headstones. I started by picking out a nice bouquet of pink roses for Stan, from his Wendy Rose.
I figured he would get a kick out of that play on words.
I continued to grab the least haggard flowers I could find, picking up as many as I could fit in my cold hands. That was when I found the $20 bill, tangled up in the plastic green stems.
Was this some kind of dark and twisted “Just For Laughs” gag? Was Ashton Kutcher about to pop up from behind the neighbouring prison walls, screaming, “You just got punk’d!”
Neither of these potential realities was close. I was alone — literally the only living person as far as the eye could see.
Dumbfounded by this weird find, I wasn’t sure what to do. After a minute of deliberation, I shoved the water-resistant $20 bill in my pocket, having decided this was my tip from beyond the grave of the “good deed” I was about to do.
Stanley’s grave was wet and frozen, so I dug into the slushy snow to secure his pink roses there. I contemplated putting the $20 bill there, too, but I figured if Stan was a good enough person to sacrifice himself for his adopted country, he’d probably be OK with buying me dinner.
When I got home, I decided to share my strange afternoon on social media, posting a few snaps of the graveyard, accompanied by a wall of text explaining my day. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive, which I wasn’t really expecting, since I felt like I had just stolen $20 from the dead.
This is when Stanley really found his voice — through The Telegram’s own Tara Bradbury. She started digging up information on my late pal, eventually finding details about his family, his friends, his home, his life — the life he had lived before it was cut so tragically short by violence.
Stanley lived at 86 Springdale St. just a few doors up from a house I used to party at.
Born in 1894, Stanley entered the world alongside his twin brother, John. They had three older sisters, Amy, Lilla and Ina, born in 1890, 1892 and 1893, respectively.
Five years after the twins came another son, Maxwell, followed by Cecil, 10 years later.
Tara also found an attestation paper for a Canadian overseas expeditionary force, presumably filled out by Stanley himself. His handwriting. His signature.
Oh God, his signature — the thin line on which he signed away his life. It was almost too much.
A letter, written posthumously about Stanley and his friend, Edward L. Mackay, was Tara’s next emotionally devastating find. The letter, signed by “One Who Knew and Loved Them,” detailed the pair’s friendship — their chance meeting in Nova Scotia, and their intense desire to fight for their country.
After hearing that the 97th Battalion had been ordered to England, the brave boys transferred to the 97th. The last correspondence received from Edward is dated March 20, 1917, and notes that “a move” is expected.
“Watch the papers, and if you see where the Canadians are advancing and taking all before them, you can guess who it is. I don’t expect to have a chance to write you again for another month, and perhaps the next you hear of me will be on the Honour Roll,” Edward wrote.
Sadly, his predictions were correct.
“These brave lads, Stanley F. Cornick and Edward L. Mackay, were both small of stature, but had big hearts filled with a love of Home and Country, and a determination to fight for them in spite of all obstacles,” the letter read. “They were chums in life, and evidently death has not parted them.”
I was reeling, overcome with emotion — a rarity for me.
In one short evening, Stanley Cornick had become more real than he had ever been for me.
After more research, Tara came up with a possible living relative — the grandson of Stanley’s sister, Ina. I contemplated contacting the man, the town organist of Stoneham, Mass., but felt emotionally unprepared.
“Hi Bruce, you don’t know me, but I often hang out with your very dead great-uncle, who is buried here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, next to my grocery store.”
I just couldn’t make the call.
I guess I’m not much of an investigative reporter, opting to live in shrouded half-mysteries, instead of getting to the bottom of the story.
But, for me, it was never about solving the mystery of Stanley Cornick. I liked him just the way he was — a tall white obelisk, next to an old tree in a beautiful graveyard.
Stanley is a symbol of fleeting mortality, and an indicator that things in my life were never as bad as I sometimes made them seem.
Stanley is also a sobering reminder of what we, as a country and a people, have overcome, and the sacrifices we have made … so weirdos like me can eat Indian food in a graveyard on Regatta Day, as free as the wind.
Twenty-three was for you, bud, and every year after, too.
I’ll see you on the other side — and I’ll bring the $20 I owe ya.