The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Maria Burke grew up on 49th between Lexington and 3rd. Her father ran a successful neighborhood bar that catered to those coming and going from Grand Central. The city was her playground, and Maria remembers all the local characters – mostly Irish and Italian immigrants like her family, and occasionally, Katharine Hepburn in her big wool coat!
Now at almost 90 years old, Maria lives just a few blocks from where she grew up, and she remains as energetic and observant as she was as a child: “Sicilians can size people up very well.” She’s seen New York transform, and she made sure to transform right along with it: “It was the mid-50s, and everywhere I looked, men were able to do whatever they wanted… I just decided I would act like a man.”
Maria spent her early adulthood going to coffee shops in the West Village and organizing and marching for change in the Feminist revolution. She rebelled against traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, choosing to work, take adventurous trips, and fall in love whenever she pleased.
It wasn’t until her mid-30s that Maria met Desmond, a pathologist at the hospital where she worked at the accession desk, a job that required a strong stomach and a tough spirit. Her friends grimaced at her “ghoulish” occupation, but Maria didn’t mind. And it’s in this unlikely setting that she found true love. Maria was struck by Desmond’s intelligence and humor, and much like everything Maria did, she knew what she wanted; they would be married for 51 years.
Maria and Desmond moved, for several years, to St. Paul: “the most boring place, but the most honest people.” There, she raised two daughters, Claudia and Marina, and pursued a degree in Political Science, before moving back East to Long Island. If you ask this native New Yorker if she liked Long Island, Maria will get a wry glint in her eye: “well, when you come from 49th street…” After many years outside the city, Maria and Desmond finally retired and resettled in her childhood neighborhood of Midtown East.
After Desmond passed away in 2017, Maria found herself living alone for the first time in half a century. She noticed that changes to her cognition were becoming quite pronounced, so Maria’s care manager suggested Duet. Maria needed a companion to engage with her socially and keep her active in daily activities. As they assembled a list of candidates, Maria had a strong vision of who she needed: a male caregiver, preferably with some connection to Italy, who wouldn’t mind if she smoked all day. Before long, Nick entered Maria’s life.
Even at 15, Nick felt a kind of ease and rapport talking to seniors. He has always enjoyed getting to know new people and the way they think. “I like characters,” he smiles and shrugs.
After graduating from Ithaca College with a major in English, Nick began looking for work in human services, and he took a job as a caseworker for runaway and homeless youth. When Nick moved to New York City, he continued his search for just the right kind of community work. When he applied to Duet, Nick knew, “this work would be so unique and different.” Shortly thereafter, he was called in to interview with Maria. Nick laughs, remembering the first time they met, performing their dialogue in a loving and spot-on impression: “If I smoke, you’re not gonna fall apart on me, are ya?”
She is extremely proud of her Sicilian heritage and can find a way to work Italy’s contributions to the world into almost any conversation: “According to Maria, Italy is responsible for 92% of the world’s art” Nick laughs, incredulously.
Maria’s brusk humor is what Nick found most endearing. After his interview, he hoped that Maria would be a match: “I would always prefer [to work with someone] challenging and interesting to easy and boring.”
The feeling was mutual. Nick and Maria began working together three days per week. After 8 months of this schedule, Nick, Maria, and her daughters made the choice to increase Maria’s care, and Nick came on full time. In this transition to full-time caregiving, Nick says “there was a ton of trust.”
Nick and Maria fill their days with Tai Chi Youtube videos, card games, trips to the 92nd Street Y, and friendly arguments over their respective movie and TV preferences: Maria “is obsessed” with Gone With the Wind, which Nick has now seen many times but maintains (with a wink) that it’s “boring.”
They lunch almost daily at a nearby coffee shop, where Maria is known, beloved, and allowed to smoke (if she sits outside). Maria has become as much of an institution in the neighborhood as many of the city’s landmarks. Nick loves the afternoons they sit and talk (and talk) in nearby Tudor City – “it’s like being in a whole other New York,” as if the Midtown of Maria’s childhood and the one they encounter now coexist as one storied, timeless world.
If you were to pass by Nick and Maria in the park, you’d see two wonderfully complex characters writing their own story: Senior and companion. Grandson and grandmother. Best Friends. Their banter is familiar, comfortable, and hilarious, even if only to them. “[We] didn’t expect anyone to understand her so well outside of the family,” says Maria’s daughter Claudia.