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Janet Davenport, who raised five kids with song, love and laughter, dies at 79

Sons William (left) Patrick with Janet Davenport

Sons William (left) and Patrick with Janet Davenport

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Updated: April 22, 2013 12:07PM

One Christmas when she couldn’t afford a tree, Janet Davenport sneaked out on Christmas Eve after the kids were in bed, borrowed an artificial tree from a neighbor’s attic and spent hours decorating it, until she fell asleep on the couch.

Her warm smile masked the financial struggles faced by a single mom.

“I know now that we were poor growing up, but my mother knew how to budget and stretch a dollar. I just think about what she was earning and I know myself alone, I couldn’t live on what she was surviving on with five kids,” said her son, Michael “Misha” Davenport.

“One of her favorite songs was Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile.’ It was definitely how she faced life. Every problem, even when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a month ago, she smiled. She just smiled and said, ‘I’ve had a good life,’ ” her son said.

Ms. Davenport, 79, died on March 13 in Chicago.

She grew up in Detroit. At 18, she landed a job at the Detroit Public Library, where she fell in love with a co-worker, William J. Davenport. They married in 1959.

They realized they had met long before. In kindergarten, a boy dipped her pigtail in an inkwell.

It turned out that boy was William Davenport.

They divorced in 1973, not long after the birth of their youngest child, Bridget. At the time, they were the first divorced couple in their Catholic congregation — and Ms. Davenport “famously told off” a parish priest who questioned her mothering, her son said.

“If you said something about her or, God forbid, her kids, she would go into defense mode. She was fiercely protective,” he said.

She had dreams of traveling; of becoming a writer or a special-education teacher. But the kids came first, so an associate degree, used for a bookkeeping job, would have to do.

Today, one of her sons lives in India; one became a writer, and the other, a special-education teacher.

“Unconsciously, we fulfilled her dreams,” Michael Davenport said. “And I think she was proud of that, living vicariously through her kids.”

Despite a thin wallet, Ms. Davenport was a creative wiz at finding ways to get her family away from their suburban Detroit home and out exploring.

“If something had really made her sad or we couldn’t afford to do anything else, my mom would put us in the station wagon and ride up and down the main streets in Royal Oak,” her son said. “She would drive up and down Woodward Avenue and teach us how to sing and harmonize . . . It was a coping mechanism for her.”

They would sing tunes from “The Sound of Music,” the Beatles and Neil Diamond. On other days, they’d head to the public library.

“She always said books are the one place that you can book a passage to anywhere for free,” her son said. “There was an entire year where our TV set was broken and we all just read.”

She moved to Chicago in 2007 to live with Michael.

Every Christmas Eve at midnight, she’d join her big Irish clan for a Baileys toast. And she often put Baileys in her coffee on St. Patrick’s Day, which turned out to be the very day her wake took place. In keeping with Irish tradition, it focused on laughter and celebrated her life.

“I have to think my mother sort of planned this,” her son said. “Anyone can cry, but if you can laugh at something painful, that’s extraordinary.”

Other survivors include sons William and Patrick; another daughter, Erin; her sisters, Marilou Cheff; Patt Klebba, and Elenor Culpert, and seven grandchildren.

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