"You're a mess," I told him. "I bet you don't belong to anybody." (1.21)
To Opal, "family" is the people who care about you. They provide physical and emotional care and make you feel like you belong—just like Miss Franny, Gloria, and even the Dewberry brothers.
My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it's hard for me to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach. And so, in my mind, I think of him as "the preacher." (2.1)
Check it out: there's a difference between a good man and a good daddy. The preacher is so disconnected from Opal that she can't even see him as her dad. Why? He's not doing what a true dad would do. He's got to break out of his shell or let her in.
"Are you looking for a home?" the preacher asked, real soft, to Winn-Dixie.
Winn-Dixie wagged his tail.
"Well," the preacher said. "I guess you've found one." (2.26)
Crack, crack on the turtle shell here. Winn-Dixie's I'll-love-you-forever-no-matter-what attitude penetrates even the preacher's padlocked heart. He can't help but accept a dog that accepts him.
"You don't have any family and neither do I. [...] So we're almost like orphans." (3.2)
Poor Opal. She feels so alone that she thinks of herself as an orphan. Technically, she does have a father, but he's so far gone into his own mind, he doesn't really count. And with her mother gone for seven years, she's pretty much on her own. Sniff.
"I've been talking to him and he agreed with me that, since I'm ten years old, you should tell me ten things about my mama. Just ten things, that's all." (3.25)
The preacher hasn't told Opal one thing about her mother, so it's no wonder her mom has become a beautiful ghost haunting the back of Opal's mind. No wonder she hopes desperately for her to come back. In her loneliness, Opal creates an image of who she thinks her mother was. It's high time she finds out more about who she truly was—good and bad.
"I gotta go home and tell my mama about what I seen. I live right down there. In that yellow house. That's my mama on the porch. You see her? She's waving at you." (12.30)
Sweetie Pie's innocence is so darn cute and precisely what Opal wishes she could have. Unfortunately, life has forced Opal to let go of some of the innocence she craves, especially when it comes to a relationship with her mother.
I wondered what in the world Amanda Wilkinson had to feel sad about. She wasn't new to town. She had a mama and a daddy. I had seen her with them in church. (17.21)
This just goes to show Opal's obsession (and can you blame her?) with family. In her mind, if someone has parents, they have the whole enchilada. With guacamole on the side, even! How could someone be sad when they had family? What Opal doesn't know is that Amanda's family is incomplete, too. She's missing a brother.
"Carson was her brother. He drowned last year."
"Yes," said the preacher. "His family is still suffering a great deal." (18.48-50)
After this, Amanda makes perfect sense to Opal. Since losing a family member is the root of Opal's sorrow, she feels deeply connected to Amanda. Sometimes, all you have to do is understand what makes someone tick.
"When I told you your mama took everything with her, I forgot one thing, one very important thing she left behind."
"What?" I asked.
"You," he said. "Thank God your mama left me you." (24.38-40)
Dance of joy, everyone! The preacher is back! He was so consumed with his loss that he forgot to notice what he still had. After this point, Opal only refers to him as "daddy." Aw, someone hand us the tissues.
"And your dog settled in under my chair. And fell asleep. And that's where he's been ever since, just waiting for you to come back and find him." (25.38)
And there you have it. Winn-Dixie is family now, and he'll always wait for Opal to find him. Just like Opal waited until her daddy finally found her. Just like Opal and her daddy will always be there if her mama comes back. Love and loyalty, no matter what.