SIGNAL PEAK — Adel Diego remembers her early childhood in rural Mexico. She lived on an hacienda. She remembers playing in the river. She remembers the fruit trees.
She doesn’t remember getting polio. She doesn’t remember a day without polio. She was too young for that, only a year and a half old.
It hasn’t slowed her down. She greets customers at the Avocado Nursery with a smile, a knowledge of all things plants and a willingness to show them where to find what they want. Sometimes customers note her limp. They tell Diego not to go out of her way.
In Diego’s words: “They say, ‘Don’t worry, just point where it’s at. You stay here.’”
She tells them: “There’s no problem. I walk this nursery every day.”
She’s walked it for 20 years. She rose to become the manager, working for Phil Bond. He founded the Avocado Nursery, along with his wife, Julie. She died in 2013. Phil carried on until his death, just last August.
In his will, he turned the nursery over to his most loyal workers. Diego, of course, as well as Marisol Rodriguez and Guadalupe Rodriguez, Marisol’s mother. Marisol handles the landscaping end of the business, Distinctive Earthscapes. Lupe, as she’s known, helps with landscaping.
The Avocado is a distinctive nursery. Its brick-lined paths meander through greenery labeled with hand-crafted signs.
Diego’s own life path took a few detours. But she had help along the way. And a few timely encounters.
She’s 45. That’s young for a person who’s had polio. Vaccines were widely available by 1975, when Diego was born. Except in parts of rural Mexico, she added. For her parents, who had no car, it was a four-hour walk to the clinic.
She did get a first polio vaccine, she said.
“When I needed to get the second vaccination,” she said, “I didn’t get there in time.”
It could have been worse. She at least had some protection. The doctor told her: “You were lucky. You didn’t get completely disabled.”
She could walk, with difficulty.
When Diego was 7, her family moved to the Picacho area. Her mother and father worked on a citrus farm. Workers used tractors to pick ripe oranges. One drove the tractor and — as it passed by — another picked the fruit.
Diego attended Picacho Elementary School. The students, she said, did not tease her for her disability. Only for the tube socks she wore with a dress.
She walked with a foot turned inward. Only surgery would fix that. Robert Noe, the district’s superintendent at the time, helped her get insurance.
“He made everything to where it was possible for me to get the treatment, surgery, the checkups and everything,” Diego said.
Without surgery, Diego might have needed a wheelchair or a cane. Now she walks with a leg brace. That’s walk, as in good luck keeping up with her.
In 1998, Diego moved to Casa Grande with her mother, Reyna. Adel dreamed of becoming a pediatric nurse. She wanted to be like the nurses who treated her. One of her doctors shot the dream down.
He said: “You can’t do it because you can’t walk.”
He was wrong. Just the same, Diego switched dreams.
She liked working with numbers, so she took accounting courses at Central Arizona College, Signal Peak. She eventually got degrees in business administration and communications, as well as accounting.
Her business communications professor was Julie Bond.
“She would get to know her students and talk to them,” Diego said.
Diego told Julie that she and her mother were building their own house. They did the framing, tiling and landscaping.
She told Diego: “If you’ve done landscaping, if you’ve done irrigation, you might be interested in coming and helping us.”
And so began Diego’s two-decade career at the Avocado.
Julie brought Diego in to help with the paperwork. Julie Bond was like an aunt to her.
“Like a family member,” Diego said. “That’s how she treated us.”
She was a compassionate aunt in matters of illness and personal issues. A stern aunt in matters of business.
If Diego did something wrong, Julie had her do it over. Under Julie, she learned to handle bookkeeping, accounting and sales. The paperwork end of running the business.
Phil Bond showed her how to run a nursery.
“He was like a father to me,” Diego said.
Here, she teared up. She paused. Then she gathered herself and went on.
“He didn’t see that I was weak, because of my disability.”
He told Diego she could do anything anybody else could. And with his guidance, she did it.
“I had to run around an eight-acre nursery,” she said. “I started watering, and working with cactus.”
From there, Phil Bond taught her about the different plants. How to deal with pests. How to propagate new plants from seed and cuttings. She took courses and became a certified Master Gardener.
Most of all, she said, “he taught me the value of work. For anything to get done, you need to get up front and do it yourself.”
Around 2010, during the recession, the three future owners got the chance to prove themselves.
“We weren’t getting the clientele,” Diego said.
In part, suppliers dried up. Landscapers and other customers couldn’t get the plants they needed. So Diego, Marisol and Lupe went to work. They increased the plant stock. They worked to keep the Avocado on its feet.
“The three of us were the ones that stayed and we kept pushing each other.”
They’d set their own goals. “OK, by this week, we want to have so many plants upgraded — 500 plants, 1,000 plants, upgraded by this week.”
Upgrade is shop talk for propagating new plants.
Phil Bond took notice. Four or five years ago, he called the three into his office.
He told them: “I talked to Julie before she passed … this is what our thoughts were.”
They wanted Diego, Marisol and Lupe to carry on the business. It includes the 10 acres the nursery sits on. Bond left the underground house he lived in to his daughter, Susan. It fronts the nursery and faces Overfield Road, about a mile off CAC at Signal Peak.
He gave Diego his 3-year-old rat terrier, Chad-O. Chad-O roams the nursery with his best friend, an 8-year-old German shepherd named Cujo. Unlike the dog of fiction, this Cujo is very friendly. He was abandoned at the nursery as a puppy. Diego took him in. He and Chad-O compete to greet customers.
With ownership comes a few new tasks. Mainly payroll and taxes. But otherwise, the job’s the same.
Work hard. Take care of customers. Just like “when Phil was here.”