More than 80 years ago, in Riga, Latvia, a girl was born. Her mother wanted to call her Larissa. But her father thought too many girls had that name. So – perhaps influenced by the fact that their family name started with A – they called her Arisa. (The stress in Latvian is on the first syllable, and the name sounded the same with single or double s, so Arisa really was Larissa minus L. But in English-speaking context, Arisa is always said as you would expect, with the accent on the second syllable.)
A small digression here. You may not know where the name Larissa comes from; if you don’t, you’re in good company. In fact, you’re in a group that includes pretty much everyone. It’s a name that has been popular in some parts of Europe (especially eastern ones) for some time, since there is a Saint Larissa, who was part of a group of martyrs in a place that is now on the eastern side of Turkey. The name is Greek, and we’re not sure, but it was probably taken from the Greek city in Thessaly named Λάρισα (Lárisa, but usually rendered as Larissa). The name of that city is also of uncertain origin, but likely comes from λαρός (larós, ‘sweet, delicious, pleasing). This would all have been history unknown to the parents of little Arisa.
If you’ve done the math, you know that a war was breaking out just around when Arisa was born. That war and its sequelae led many people in the Baltic states to leave for another country. Arisa and her parents and younger sister escaped to Sweden. And then, after a few years, when Arisa was 10, they took a ship to Canada.
Arisa and her sister grew up in Toronto and environs. Arisa enjoyed the arts. She was excellent at drawing and painting. She loved ballet.
She danced avidly for as long as she could, even for years after she was married and had two daughters. And when she no longer could dance, she moved on, but she didn’t leave the arts behind. She designed and sewed clothing for herself and her daughters. When her older daughter became a figure skater, she made her costumes for her programs. She helped both daughters with their school art assignments. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of dance, especially with her older daughter, who, along with becoming a professional figure skater, earned two degrees in dance studies.
And then that older daughter – Aina – met me, volunteer ushering at a dance festival. In 2000, Arisa became my mother-in-law. And with me as with everyone, she was unfailingly kind, conscientious, and giving.
She never stopped being interested and involved in the arts. She volunteered for arts festivals (including literary and film festivals). She joined us to theatre and dance. If you met her in her later years, you might not expect she had ever been a dancer, and she would never tell you she had, and yet she loved the arts avidly… just as you would never expect that her name was altered from the name of a saint named after a Greek town, and yet it preserved the euphony that had undoubtedly helped make it so popular (a euphony that has led to the name being created in other cultures quite independently).
And you could never miss noticing that she had a certain flair.
She joined Aina and me to several theatre festival performances this year, complete with picnic lunches. We were looking forward to more with her. But, on short notice, she – and we – discovered that her season was ended. But at least we had what she had given us, which was so much. Like her name, she was always sweet… and more – and other – than you might expect.