I spent most of my free time as a kid at the Evergreen Washelli cemetery. There weren't many parks in the Aurora neighborhood in the 1990s.
With our two dogs, Jack and Pirate, my dad, my brother, and I would play tag and hide-and-seek among the blackberry bushes and swampy duck ponds. I loved the dogs, but my dad was really the mammal guy. I adored reptiles. I had anole lizards and turtles. I raised an African tortoise from golf-ball-size to hula-hoop-size. My thing for reptiles is not surprising—they are the John Waters movie of pets.
My favorite activities in the cemetery were picking blackberries and catching garter snakes. The snakes bit hard enough to draw blood, and made a terrible smell in defense when I grabbed them, but their teeth were tiny and venom-less and didn't scare me one bit. I had a terrarium furnished with sand, driftwood, warm lights, and store-bought crickets and mealworms. It was basically a snake hotel. I knew the snakes loved freedom, so I kept the ones I caught only a month or so.
One day, out with the dogs, I caught an enormous garter snake, at least two feet long. It was uncharacteristically lethargic, lying on a warm rock near an empty grave. The snake was also noticeably lumpy, and when I showed my prize to my mom, she urged me to let it go immediately. She didn't tell me until much later that she'd worried it had cancer. She knew how attached I became to my pets.
After I pleaded, she let me keep it. One night a few weeks later, a rustling sound in the terrarium woke me up. The snake was wiggling in a way I had never seen a snake move. A tiny snake, the size of an earthworm, slid onto the sand. It broke through what looked like the yolk of an egg, except it was clear, to find a comfortable spot under the heat lamp.
The snake I'd caught was giving birth. One glossy, sparkly-eyed baby slid out after another. The babies gathered under the lamp to dry off. It was so exciting, it felt like Christmas morning, but it was too late to wake anyone up.
The next day, I brought the babies tiny crickets and water. I looked around the terrarium for eggshells, but as it turns out, garter snakes do live birth. It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I felt like some kind of snake uncle.
The following week, I went on vacation. When we got home, four of the baby snakes, along with the mother, had escaped into the house. We didn't know where they were. I looked everywhere, imagining them in the walls—but hoping, if I didn't find them, that they had at least made it outside.
A few days after that, I woke up to shrieking.
The snakes had climbed into an empty suitcase, and when my mother opened it, they burst out like some Indiana Jones scenario.
We let them go after that, setting them out in the yard, except the mother snake, which I released in the cemetery where I found her. I did hold on to one baby snake, which I kept in a tiny cricket-furnished terrarium in my tree house. I was pretty sure it wouldn't be allowed in the house after the suitcase incident.
Garter snakes live up to 20 years. You might have seen my guests in your garden.