Christmas tree on the beach cheers West Haven widower — and everyone else
A lot of you may have seen that cute little Christmas tree that showed up out on the beach on the West Shore of West Haven a few days ago, but do you know the story about how it came to be there?
It’s a love story — a beautiful one — as well a Christmas story of healing and recovery.
Last year, after losing both Donna, his wife of more than 48 years — the center of his life — and his 8-year-old yellow lab, Buddy, in quick succession, Sal Schaivone just didn’t have the energy or desire to put up a Christmas tree in his suddenly empty Ocean Avenue home.
This year, as he began to heal, his children and grandchildren insisted that he put up a tree — although they didn’t say how or where.
So last Sunday, Schaivone quietly erected a lifelike artificial blue spruce — right smack out on Dawson Avenue beach where the whole world drives by and can see it, but also where he can see it out his front bedroom window. He added a few ornaments.
Then his granddaughter Sissy Wilson, 24, of Hamden, came over. She took pictures of granddad, 73 — out on the beach, bare chested, in his bathing suit — basking in the blazing December sun beneath a sun umbrella opposite the tree.
He printed them up for Christmas cards — and posted them on his Facebook page.
Schaivone, a Vietnam veteran, even put up a couple of solar-powered spotlights near the tree, along with a solar-powered light where the star would go on top, so people could see the tree at night.
Other people drove by and saw the tree.
They took their own photos and also posted them on Facebook and Instagram, and folks began to share them — and this incredible thing began to happen.
People came by — many without even knowing how the tree got there — and began adding their own decorations, a few each day. A group from the New Haven Veterans Center in Orange, which Schaivone is involved with, even came to decorate.
Angels. Critters. Shell sculptures. Bells. Bows. All kinds of stuff.
Then on Friday, someone hung a couple of strings of Christmas lights on the tree — and a couple of small battery boxes to keep them going.
So now the tree glows brightly and colorfully at night — and almost any time you go by there are people stopped to check out West Haven’s beautiful, modest new tree.
“It’s amazing — it’s a good feeling,” Schaivone said, looking at the tree out of the front window of his home one recent afternoon. “It’s great! People are loving it!”
When he put it up, he wasn’t really thinking about anyone else.
“I was just thinking how much my wife enjoyed the beach — and how much she enjoyed Christmas,” he said.
“It’s amazing ... the people who started coming and hanging ornaments on it,” said Schaivone, the retired director of facilities at the Yale University School of Art.
In just a few days, “it went from a naked tree” to a thing of warmth and beauty on the city’s shore. “It just kept going and going,” he said.
Last year, Donna died at age 68 from a couple of blood clots following a heart attack in September. Schaivone celebrated her birthday without her in October and their anniversary without her in November.
He discovered he had to euthanize Buddy, who had cancer, a couple of months after his wife died, and after all that, “I decided, ‘No, I’m not putting up a tree.’”
This year, his kids — daughter Leshea Schaivone and son Sal Jr. Schaivone, both of Hamden — would have none of that.
So “I put it up last Sunday and it’s not coming down until after Jan. 6, which is also my daughter’s birthday,” said Schaivone, who has been in the news before — his wife and he used to own that cute, mini houseboat that was moored at the Pequonnock Yacht Club at City Point in New Haven.
“It’s so cool,” said Leshea Schaivone of the tree. She learned that her dad was going to put it on the beach at the same time that her daughter did, although Sissy — whose real name is Donna, after her grandmother — did the initial photo shoot.
When Leshea saw the photos, she reacted with “tears of joy,” she said. “I was very proud, because last year there wasn’t even a sign of Christmas. He’s doing MUCH better this year. He’s doing a lot better than I thought he would be doing at this time...
“I’m still in shock — because every day there’s new ornaments on the tree,” Leshea Schaivone said. “There are people coming every day.”
Growing up, Christmas Eve — done up the Italian way, with the Seven Fishes — was always at her parents’ house, although last year, “we had to move it to my house” and they’ll do it there again this year, she said.
“I’m just very happy that my dad has decided to get in the Christmas spirit — and get everyone else in the Christmas spirit,” she said.
So are the people who see the tree, which has generated smiles all along the West Haven shore.
“I love it!” said West Havener Kim Dalton, who first saw the tree when she drove by it last week. A little later, she came back and “I put an ornament on it,” she said.
“I love it, because ... there are lights!” she said. “And every time I come, there have been people parked outside” to check it out.
“I think it’s a great idea what he’s doing,’ said Juan Lopez, a friend and neighbor who is the manager of Columbus Auto Body in New Haven. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. He’s got a big heart!”
Neighbor Lynne Thomas, who didn’t know Schaivone before, went by to check out the tree after seeing a photo on Facebook of what at the time was “just a plain tree.”
But “when I found out why he did that, I said, ‘I’m coming with my angel ornaments!’”
In her mind, the angel constructed of shells that Thomas hung on the tree represents Donna Schaivone, even though they never met.
“This makes me happy!” she said.
Schaivone is just happy that no one has given him any guff about putting the there — and he wanted to publicly thank Mayor Nancy Rossi, the city’s Public Works Department and the Police Department for their understanding — and “for not putting me in cuffs.”