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Grace has been experimenting. Experimenting with meanness. Her laboratory is the playroom and her bubbling beakers and vials are her toys. As for her compliant, diminutive assistant, the one who submits to her authority without question...well, that's William. "Igor," if you will.

Recently, I was preparing lunch for the good doctor as she concentrated on her work. She held an Angelina Ballerina doll in one hand, her friend Alice in the other. She voiced each doll in turn — a gentle shake identified the speaker. Angelina spoke first.

"I'm going to come in this castle!" she announced. Her tone was as certain and defiant as a plush mouse in a tutu could hope for.

"You can't come in here," answered Alice, bouncing up and down, "because I'm mean!"

"I'm mean, too!" Angelina shot back.

"Then you can come in!" Alice answered.

Dr. Grace then placed the two dolls on top of the castle. She observed the results of her experiment, her hands on her hips. "Yeah!" she said to no one in particular. Her nose was crinkled like a tiny accordion; her hard, pink elbows thrust aggressively behind her. She seemed satisfied.


Or hugely pissed. It was hard to tell, actually.

Children go through all sorts of developmental stages, as we all know. For instance, they attain gross motor milestones. William tagged Grace in the skull with a Fisher-Price coffee pot a week ago, from clear across the room. I was annoyed, but I also made a mental note to buy him a football as soon as possible.

They develop speech, language, and listening skills. I can remember preparing a bottle a couple of years ago with William perched on my hip. Grace sat eating berries at the kitchen table. William spat his binky onto the floor, and before anyone could respond, Grace said, "F-----g binky."

So her ears and mouth work.

Now she's working on her social skills. Lately, she's become fascinated with the seedier aspects of humanity. She loves fairies, rainbows, and such, and so she got a Barbie Fairytopia video for her birthday last spring. But it was the first, of all the TV shows and books she's ever been exposed to, with a clear "villain." When the movie was over, that character was all she wanted to talk about. Why was she mean? Is she always mean? And so on. She's also come to the conclusion that anyone drawn with down-turned eyebrows is "mean."

She began looking for the antagonists in her books. She'd point to a suspicious character and ask, "Is he mean?"

"No," I'd say. "Piglet isn't very mean."

"But he looks mean," she'd say. It was the eyebrows.

"Well, he's just confused because he can't find what he's looking for."

"Oh," she'd say, but I knew that she didn't believe me.

She's also heavily into Ursula the Sea Witch, the horrible and conniving villain in The Little Mermaid. She draws Ursula on her MagnaDoodle. She has told me that she wants an Ursula-themed birthday party, with a piñata, cake, balloons, and decorations all in the shape of the undersea witch. "All the kids can dress like Ursula!" she says with a wild grin on her face.

And it makes me sad. I feel like she's been tainted, and for good. She's different now. That soapy little girl I held wrapped in the hooded, dog-eared bath towel with "Gracie" sewn into the back is gone. The girl who wanted to sit curled in my lap like a ladybug and listen to her "...three books" before bed, pointing out cows, barns, and red balloons stomps around the house like a T-Rex, scowling and making demands of her dolls.

I know that I can't keep her in a bubble, but my unrealistic side wants to return to the time when the very concept of "mean" didn't exist in her world. I can remember carving letters and shapes into frosty, winter morning windows with her, and the look of fascination on her face. For me, an adult who has witnessed entirely too much of what she's just beginning to flirt with, her innocence was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Hold on to it, Grace. For just a little while longer.


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