"See," I said, "you don't have any family and neither do I. I've got the preacher, of course. But I don't have a mama. I mean I have one, but I don't know where she is. She left when I was three years old. I can't hardly remember her. And I bet you don't remember your mama much either. So we're almost like orphans." (3.2)
Opal feels connected to Winn-Dixie because they've got parent problems in common. Later on, Opal feels the same connection with Amanda, who lost a family member. So although abandonment pulls people apart, in some ways it also pulls people together. Kind of like those finger trap games.
"I think the preacher thinks about my mama all the time, too. He's still in love with her […] he's still hoping she'll come back. But he doesn't tell me that. He won't talk to me about her at all." (3.8)
The preacher seems to believe ignoring his wife's presence/absence in his life will make her influence just go away. Reality check, preacher-man. You're not going stop hurting, and Opal isn't going to stop wondering until you man up and face what happened.
"She loved you very much."
"But she left me," I told him.
"She left us," said the preacher softly. […] "She packed her bags and left us, and she didn't leave one thing behind." (4.18-20)
Here's where we start to see the depth of the preacher's sorrow. It's not just that his wife left, but she took everything. We're not just talking the remote and the pillowcases. She took a piece of the preacher's soul with her. Just don't ask him to admit that.
I wanted to know those ten things inside and out. That way, if my mama ever came back, I could recognize her, and I would be able to grab her and hold on to her tight and not let her get away from me again. (4.22)
Sounds like Opal feels somehow responsible for her mother leaving. Like if she'd only held on a little tighter, she wouldn't have left. Look, Opal, if we're sure of one thing, it's that no three-year-old little girl is responsible for her mother abandoning her.
"He just doesn't want to be left alone," I told the preacher. "That's all. Let's take him with us." I could understand the way Winn-Dixie felt. Getting left behind probably made his heart feel empty. (5.2)
How many times does Opal talk about her "empty heart"? We know it's a lot. Did her mother take a piece of her daughter's heart with her? Or would Opal's heart be filled if the preacher acted like a daddy should? Or does everyone have a heart that's just a little bit empty?
"He might run away. We have to make sure we keep him safe." […] I loved him for putting his arm around Winn-Dixie like that, like he was already trying to keep him safe. (11.26-27)
Both Opal and the preacher worry a lot about those in their care. Opal always wants to protect her friends as well as Winn-Dixie. The preacher cares for the people in his congregation and can't even bring himself to kill a mouse in the church. For that matter, neither can Winn-Dixie. Looks like he found the perfect family.
I wondered if my mama, wherever she was, had a tree full of bottles; and I wondered if I was a ghost to her, the same way she sometimes seemed like a ghost to me. (14.44)
It's hard to imagine any mother leaving her child without thinking of her over and over. But the important thing here is that Opal is able to stop wondering and move on with her life, thanks to Gloria Dump's mistake tree.
I wanted to hear the rest of the story. It was important to me to hear how Littmus survived after losing everything he loved. (16.30)
How did he do it? He found sweetness in the suffering, that's how. And guess what? Opal is going to learn the same lesson.
I thought about my mama. Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. (19.32)
Again, the empty feeling. And like a lost tooth, the space will remain empty until a new tooth grows in. When Opal finally comes to peace with her daddy, it's as if a new tooth is starting to grow (or the tooth fairy left her a motherload of moolah. Not that we're saying money can fill holes. But, you know, sometimes it can fill holes).
I felt like crying. It was my fault. I was supposed to hold on to him. And I forgot. (23.18)
Opal blames herself for the loss of Winn-Dixie. He was the one who was scared, but she feels she should have held on tighter. It's just like losing her mother—her mom may have made the choice, but Opal feels she should have held on tighter. Here's the thing: that may be true for a dog, but a daughter shouldn't have to feel that way about her mother.