Sunday, June 26

Goodbye Phyllis, hello Sophie

The last few weeks and months have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster in our family, with health problems looming over several members and uncertainty about the future.

Last week we said goodbye to Phyllis (Granny) Russell, who died at the age of 96, and hello to new niecelet Sophie Helen, who sprang seemingly out of nowhere after my younger sister announced her pregnancy on the Monday and gave birth on the Wednesday.

I was very lucky to have Granny in my life for such a long time; she was a wonderful role model and an inspiration to me as a strong, independent woman who believed life was what you made of it. Hers was not easy; her father, a shepherd, died when she was a baby and the family had to move several times and survive as best they could; her eldest son was born out of wedlock, the circumstances of which are not totally clear to me; this same son died in a motorcycle accident before I was even born. She was not prone to self-pity, she just got on with life and was not happy unless she was doing something - a trait I also recognise in myself.

She baked wonderful cakes right up until the last few months of her life, well past the time when she was interested in eating them, and right up to the point when she couldn't stand up for long enough to mix them any more. Even when I saw her a couple of weeks ago, she produced half a homemade lemon cake out of the freezer for me to take home.

She had a wicked sense of humour and a cheeky nature (both of which I think I inherited) and her observational comments about the things she experienced in day to day life, right up to the day she died, were funny and often self-deprecating. Her mind was still sharp even at 96, a fact she attributed to doing the crossword every day, and luckily she kept her mobility for much of her life and her independence right up to the last few months. A long, drawn out and painful decline in health and a loss of independence, which is what she was facing, would have been difficult for her to bear. Difficult as it is to accept her loss, I'm grateful that she was spared this.

I will miss her quick wit and her lilting Oxfordshire accent, her way of referring to inanimate objects as 'he', her stoic nature and her unwavering acceptance of her lot. RIP Granny Russell.

A few days before Granny's death, we celebrated the arrival of Sophie Helen, born to my youngest sister on 16th June in Kufstein, Austria. The fact that sis only told her family of Sophie's existence a few days before she was due created some very complex emotions for us to process. For the first time in my life I could see that counselling might be beneficial.

All the same, the bootees have been knitted up and duly dispatched with congratulatory messages. I am delighted for my sister and her partner, I know she wanted to have children and she is already considered old to be a mum, so this is a really big thing for her.

Meanwhile my elder sister spent several months under the threat of a potential cancer diagnosis, going through two operations and making some difficult and traumatic decisions before thankfully being given the all-clear. We've had many emotional conversations over the last few months and I believe it's brought us even closer together.

Families are complex things, even the ones you regard as solid and unshakeable. When I'm raising a glass to Granny on Wednesday I'll also be celebrating with my sisters and acknowledging my mum's unwavering support to all of us, especially my dad.

Saturday, June 11

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh

My business life involves an annual visit to the Pennsylvanian city of Pittsburgh - famous historically as the centre of the steel industry, and named after the British statesman William Pitt the Elder.

My colleague and I usually plan to arrive on Saturday and have a free day on Sunday, which enables us to do a bit of sightseeing or shopping - whether it's the Warhol Museum, cycling along the riverside bikepaths, or checking out one of the city's ginormous yarn stores.

This year we revisited the amazing Cathedral of Learning, part of the University of Pittsburgh; a late gothic revival building which is a dramatic landmark in the city and houses some fantastic architecture.

The building was commissioned in 1921 and opened in 1937 - its design by architect Charles Klauder was intended to combine the trend for skyscrapers with the ideals of gothic architecture, and its steel framed, stone-clad building achieves this very successfully. There was a lot of resistance to the height of the structure (163m) at the time - unsurprisingly as it is huge and can be seen for miles around.

In the central area of the ground floor is a huge reading room - the Commons Room - which has been called one of the "great architectural fantasies of the twentieth century". It is a fifteenth-century English perpendicular Gothic-style hall that covers 2,000m² and extends over four storeys, to a height of 16m.

Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, who commissioned the building, wanted to recognise the many nationalities that had contributed to the development of the city, and he did so by commissioning the nationality rooms - a series of 27 classrooms representing those nationalities of which there was a significant population in the city.

Invitations were extended to the nationality communities that made up the Pittsburgh area to provide a room that was representative of their heritage. Each group had to form a Room Committee, which would be responsible for all fundraising, designing, and acquisition. The University provided the room and upkeep in perpetuity once completed, while all other materials, labour, and design were provided by the individual committees.

These rooms are still used as classrooms - afterward, in a bar down the road, we chatted to an undergraduate at the university who had been assigned several of these rooms for lessons during his studies there.

The building is open to visitors, and you can visit the Commons Room and peek into the Syria-Lebanon room anytime, as it has a glass front to it. I think they run tours of the Nationality Rooms but couldn't find any link online. We snuck in for a look and tried the doors of the classrooms, some of which were open, including my favourite, the Hungarian Room.

The wonderful stained glass windows with images of famous Hungarians and scenes from folk tales were a highlight (I recommend you click the pictures to see the full details):