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The Bridge of Sighs by Martha Wiseman

Martha Wiseman has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2023 Essay/Memoir Contest


My mother sighed. Frequently, variously, operatically. She was, after all, a singer, a dramatic soprano.I can barely sing. But I can sigh. All my life I’ve apparently been practicing my mother’s repertoire of sighs. A teacher once told me I sighed more than anyone she’d ever met. She never met my mother.


My mother sighed when faced with something she’d prefer not to do (and she preferred not to do a great many things). She sighed when I became, as she might say, obstreperous. She sighed when thinking of her own history. Some of the arias she practiced sounded like sighs to me.

Close up photo of frowning Lego woman with viking hat, long braided hair, and sword
Lego Opera Singer-not happy by Ted Drake. CC license.

Let me catalogue her repertoire. Some sighs began with deep, long inhalations, as if she were sucking in air, the exhalations like descending arpeggios, a soul sinking down. Some entailed a rapid series of brief inhales followed by an extended sequence of outpuffs. Some involved a slow intake of air leading up to a heart-rending moan of Oh, God. Late in the evening, as she settled herself in bed—perhaps with her copy of The Food of Italy—the sighs ranged from melodic to labored and stuttered, an unmistakable song cycle, a summary of another melancholy day, her version, I like to think, of vespers.


My mother adored things Italian. She’d lived in Italy, studying opera, the year before I was born. I don’t think she lived in Venice. But perhaps she visited that watery city and crossed the Bridge of Sighs. My mother’s name was Nell, but she preferred to be addressed as Nella.


I’ve read that these days, one can enter the Bridge of Sighs only as part of a tour, and only in summer. As the bridge is enclosed and its windows barred, visitors may become overheated and claustrophobic. One would, I suppose, if one were headed to the prison on one side of the bridge.

Ah! Sospiro!


My mother may at one time have been in love with a tall Italian man named Gernando. She referred to him as a friend. At some point, I realized I hadn’t heard her mention him in a long time. I asked about him. Her face clouded and she sighed almost angrily and said she never wanted to hear his name again. I could glean only that they’d planned to celebrate New Year’s Eve together and he did not show up and soon married—married someone else, I supposed she meant. My mother never forgave him.


I’ve never been to Italy. But if I ever go to Venice, perhaps I’ll walk on the Bridge of Sighs and heave a good sigh for my mother.


My mother, despite her Italian leanings, did not like Puccini. I find that I don’t much, either. She loved Mozart, as do I, and he was Austrian. The libretti for most of his operas, however, were in Italian. She found Beethoven too Germanic. But she sang Hugo Wolf, and she was partial to Richard Strauss.

After my mother died, I found a picture postcard of Venice’s iconic opera house, La Fenice, among the few mementos she’d kept.


I don’t think my mother knew that Byron’s “Childe Harold” (he just goes on and on, she might have said) is credited with making the bridge famous:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand . . .

The legends attached to the Bridge of Sighs—that convicts crossing over from interrogation in the Doge’s Palace to their place of confinement sighed their last sigh of freedom on this bridge or sighed at their last view of the city; that lovers passing beneath the bridge were guaranteed a never-ending amore, their sighs of contentment breathed upward—are just that, legends, the one historically impossible, the other wishful.

Maybe my mother slid under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola. Was she with anyone besides the gondolier? Her own wishful thinking—her longing for lasting love, for an operatic life—would have led her to sigh dramatically, trailing her hand through the polluted water.

When she lived in Italy, she was married to my father, but he was not with her. She said she came home because she wanted to have me before she was too old. That wish was fulfilled, at least. The lasting love vanished.

Photo of the bridge of sighs from the water
The Bridge of Sighs by helicon two (flickr.com). CC license.


I sigh. The sighs are my mother’s legacy. A bridge between us. Perhaps that is overly symbolic, but the metaphor seems fitting. Straightforward, which our relationship wasn’t.

Sometimes simplicity and straightforwardness are reassuring.


I hear myself taking a deep, almost gulping breath. I hear the rough, sorrowful exhalation that follows.

I hear my mother.

Martha G. Wiseman
Martha Graham Wiseman has been an acting student, a dancer, and an editor. She taught English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., until retiring in 2020. Her essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Fish Anthology 2021, Ponder Review, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, Under the Sun, The Santa Ana River Review, The Bookends Review, oranges journal (U.K.), Kestrel, and Map Literary; work is forthcoming from Queen’s Quarterly (Canada). She has also published fiction and poetry.

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My Brother’s Heart by Phyllis Brotherton

Red cut out heart with a white pulse line drawn on it

Phyllis Brotherton has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2023 Essay/Memoir Contest   I carry my brother’s heart all the way to Salina, Kans. When we’re still an interminable hour away, his wife texts, “Hurry.” My wife speeds the rented Traverse up I-35 North, the smoothest, blackest, flattest expanse of four-lane we’ve ever seen. The well-kept interstate, fresh asphalt, closely mown center medians, stretch before us in the 2 a.m. darkness. I imagine the SUV’s front wheels lifting off, separating from tarmac, rising up, flying over these final miles in minutes. Alas, we’re bound to … Continue reading My Brother’s Heart by Phyllis Brotherton

Michael Powers: Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2023 Art Contest

Rendering of woman with crown of bones

    Streetlight: When did you become interested in art? Michael Powers: I have had an interest in artist expression from a very early age. Several of my grade school friends and I would get together at recess and on weekends and draw. Our subject matter was predominantly World War II–based, as all of our fathers had fought in the War, and it was the constant source of conversations in the lives of so many relatives and neighbors. I was chosen as one of twenty promising fourth graders, across Cleveland, to participate in a weekly … Continue reading Michael Powers: Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2023 Art Contest

Raking Leaves by Beth Copeland

brown limb of oak leaves

Beth Copeland has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2022 Poetry Contest Raking Leaves Dry oak leaves are riddled with BB-sized shot-holes. Is it an encoded warning from the universe, a map of stars, a chart of scorched sun spots? They remind me of paper rolls used on player pianos or of old hole-punched cards we once fed into huge computers. Are these holes a score of whole notes played as November wind whistles through trees? I think about the holes as I rake leaves away from the walls of the house before they rot … Continue reading Raking Leaves by Beth Copeland

Rain in Dublin by Gary Beaumier

rainy window with large white light on road

Gary Beaumier has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2022 Poetry Contest Rain in Dublin I want to know what happened to the 90 year old man who raced up the steps of the Empire State Building several years ago Has he slipped away in the night in some unremarkable way while I turned in my sleep and WH Auden when his body quit was I scrapping off the evening dinner plates into the garbage but then he knew of the world’s indifference and you mother at some disconnected hour in the morning with your … Continue reading Rain in Dublin by Gary Beaumier

Progress Report 50 Years after Reading Black Elk by William Prindle

Large stone outcrop surrounded by trees

William Prindle has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2022 Poetry Contest Progress Report 50 Years after Reading Black Elk Last night in the silences between barred owl calls I thought I heard some people passing by the pond. Might have been plangent minor chords of bullfrog and fowler’s toad sounding a bit like human voices, but I picked up hints of Cherokee heading west, or was it Monacan disappearing into the high coves? I thought I heard bluegill or maybe perch rising to The surface to feed, but maybe it was only the sound … Continue reading Progress Report 50 Years after Reading Black Elk by William Prindle

Dee’s Salon by Jeff Ventura

Pink blossoms on branches

Jeff Ventura has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2022 Essay/Memoir Contest The love of a husband for a wife, of my father’s love for my mother, is scattered in my memory like peach blossoms after a spring storm. Sometime in the mid-to-late 70s, my mom—pregnant, and happy to leave the hot production floor of the Bonnie Lane pajama factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts—decided to open her own “beauty shop.” After all, she had graduated top of her class from the LeBaron Beauty School, and had, for a time, rented the best chair at the … Continue reading Dee’s Salon by Jeff Ventura

I Want to Give Him a Chance by Sara Biel

Photo of woman, facing camera, taking a picture

Sara Biel has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2021 Poetry Contest I Want to Give Him a Chance Her voice is thin, scrapes and rolls, a dry leaf across the sidewalk. My fingers grip the phone, heart a bird in my throat. “He loves me,” she says “I want to give him a chance.” Her thoughts a murmuration, fear and hope lost together. My fingers grip the phone, heart a bird in my throat. The sun ducks behind the cover of the sinking city. “He said he loves me” her voice a startled hover … Continue reading I Want to Give Him a Chance by Sara Biel

Mourning Doves by Nate Jacob

Photo of dove on branch

Nate Jacob has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2021 Poetry Contest Mourning Doves Looking back, the choice seems obvious. A man is given the chance in life to select from a pantheon of plumed angels which will carry his tune forever on winds. My father, from what I can only imagine was a young age, took to mimicking the mourning dove with two gentle hands cupped just so together and a breath gently pressed from pursed lips: two poofs, he blew . . . and blew . . . and blew He taught that … Continue reading Mourning Doves by Nate Jacob

Dear Mi-Kwon by Elizabeth Nowak

Photo of red house on top of hill

Elizabeth Nowak has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2021 Poetry Contest Dear Mi-Kwon Before the whole world went mad, you wrote to ask about my life in beautiful America. I could not then describe in words we both know how gray the sky is. There is little these days except skinny arms passing money and brown bags through a hole in the wall of the Big Red Liquor store. I’ve grown sick watching it and the chitter of birds outside my window. I am thinking often of that day in spring when you took … Continue reading Dear Mi-Kwon by Elizabeth Nowak