When my husband and I were engaged, so long ago in the last millenium that it hardly seems real, we went to a department store that no longer exists to register for wedding gifts.

This was at my mother's suggestion, and I'm afraid we did not take many of my mother's suggestions seriously. We were recent college graduates and thought of ourselves as bohemians, even hippies (I told you it was a long time ago). We thought it laughable to register for crystal stemware or sterling silver flatware or fine china place settings when we weren't even sure where we were going to be living. We did finally register for some stoneware dishes, of which we received four place settings, and which the manufacturer discontinued before we ever bought any additional pieces. An aunt later told me that my mother, in her frustration over our lack of reverence for tradition, told her that in order to buy us a wedding gift we'd like, she should go into a store and buy whatever struck her as the weirdest thing there. We managed to have a lovely wedding and we received many lasting gifts, but we drove my mother a little crazy in the process.

Now that we have been married for over three decades, we still have never invested in good china. Or fragile stemware. Or expensive flatware. Somehow our children grew to be fantastic adults without fine table settings. We did become a pretty traditional family, in that we have regular jobs and very little drama and live in a normal house with a mortgage and a yard where dogs lounge and play. And, as it turns out, we do have a set of precious family china. It's just that our irreplaceable heirloom dishes are totally mismatched, and made of plastic. Or rather, finest melamine.

Our collection started with a company called MakIt Products, which sells a kit called Make-A-Plate. The Texas company has been in business since 1969, and our relationship with it began in the late 1980s. Santa brought each of our daughters a Make-A-Plate kit for Christmas one year, and he continued to deliver them faithfully for many years after that. Make-A-Plate kits are now available online, of course, at , but in the olden days they were sold at bookstores and toy stores, or I ordered them through the mail. Each kit consists of sheets of special circular paper, washable markers, some guidelines for a successful outcome, and the cost of processing one finished plate. The artist draws on the paper with water-based markers, the extra paper allowing for mistakes, tantrums, or changes of heart. The final, selected drawing is mailed in a special enclosed envelope to Texas. About two weeks later, the return mail brings a 10-inch melamine dinner plate with that very drawing incorporated into it. Magic!

So when I do the math, I calculate that we have four daughters, times many Christmases, which equals a towering stack of Make-A-Plates in the kitchen cabinet. Actually, to solve for x , I counted them: there are currently 25. We use a few of them daily, and all of them at every large gathering at our house. Most of them display the year they were created, sometimes penned in small numbers by Mom. The years on the extant plates run from 1988 to 2005. We used to put them in the dishwasher, until we noticed that hand-washing preserved their charm for longer. A few have disappeared over the years, likely due to potlucks or picnics. Or perhaps pilfering: They are, after all, original, one-of-a-kind designs.

The Make-A-Plates tell many family stories, of best friends over the years, of daughters' tastes and loves, of their evolving styles and interests. They present renditions of Superman and My Little Ponies, witches and rainbows, snowstorms and beach scenes, fruits and frogs. They encompass quotes from Shakespeare, abstract designs, and intricate patterns. The all-time favorite plate shows an angry-looking fish with long eyelashes, plump lipstick lips, and the immortal, yet obvious, caption, "Girl Shark Is Mad." Our dishes are definitely conversation pieces. They represent my favorite kind of tradition, in that we didn't realize we were starting a tradition until it was irreversibly under way.

We cherish our fine china, and imagine the collection will one day be split four ways. Until then, we have no regrets about the fancy tableware we've never owned. We'll stick with the melamine, and the memories.