When I first met my mother-in-law seven years ago, I was engaged to her only child. I was nervous walking into her Long Island kitchen for the first time, knowing that in-laws typically get a bad rap.

To my surprise, I immediately felt at home. She delighted in seeing my engagement ring that had been designed using three diamonds that were once hers. She’d given them to her son after his father died, encouraging him to save them for the woman he would marry.

Her son and I divorced five years ago. But the split didn’t add “ex” to my relationship to Susan. In fact, since then, we’ve grown closer.

A few times a year, my daughter, Lexi, and I will make the eight-hour drive from Maine to New York to see Susan and her husband. Last summer, we even met in South Carolina, where Lexi’s dad lives, before driving to North Carolina to meet Susan’s parents for the first time.

In 2014, I considered moving to New York to pursue a writing career. Lexi and I stayed in Susan’s house while checking out schools and opportunities in the area. When I decided against the move, Susan and I cried together, knowing the “what-ifs” would stay with us for a while. 

My daughter’s father and I eloped so we never had wedding speeches where one parent says how they aren’t losing one child but gaining another. If divorce speeches were a thing, mine would go something like this: “I didn’t lose a husband; I gained a mother.”

Each time we get together, we have heart-to-heart conversations that remind me of those I’d have with a best friend. Susan has always had a shoulder ready no matter what prompted my tears — whether that’s a disagreement with her son or hardships I encounter as a single parent.

Not only is Susan’s heart always open to me, but her hospitality extends to anyone I’m close to. She’s always eager to meet my friends. During one New York trip, my friend Katie, who introduced me to Susan’s son when we lived in Hawaii, came over to visit. Susan made us breakfast and showed Katie some gemstone necklaces she had made, since the two shared that interest.

No matter what time Lexi and I arrive at her cozy North Shore home, Susan is awake, welcoming us with food she’s prepared specifically for these occasions. And when we leave, we never have to stop for food because we have enough in our cooler to last the next three days.

During our visits, when I make plans to meet up with friends in the city, Susan will pull out her toiletries, cosmetics and favorite accessories for me, making sure I look my best. She knows how rare it is for me to get out of yoga pants and a hoodie, so she delights in having me model several outfits for her.

While I’m out, she and Lexi have their own dress-up parties. A former theater teacher, Susan has a basement full of costumes and unique articles of clothing. Last time we visited, Lexi brought her tap shoes, knowing Grandma Susan also had a pair from her days as a dancer. The two would push the living room furniture to one side and perform a routine for everyone. 

Sometimes, Lexi and I will accompany Susan to a Pilates class she teaches so that her clients and friends can meet her only grandchild. When it’s time for my introduction, there are times Susan still refers to me as her daughter-in-law.

But most of the time, she just says: “This is my daughter.”