Mention the word home, and it calls forth from each of us a flood of images. This time of year, two in particular come to mind. One takes me back to boyhood, when, racing home from school at noon through sun-dazzled snow, I plunge into the semi-gloom of the front hall. Waiting for my vision to brighten , I find myself suddenly enveloped by rich aromas from the kitchen, where my lunch is waiting.
The other, from adult years, takes me to a suburb where, also at noon, a malfunctioning burglar-alarm bell rings helplessly on a housetop. But no one answers, because in the entire neighborhood no one is home. Up and down the street, the grandparents have gone south for the winter, the children are at school, and the parents - all of them - are at work.
I'm not an old man: The time separating those two images is really rather short. But one can chart in the distance between them a change so fundamental as to shake America's social stability to the very core. It marks the waning of something we call community, a profound shift in our concept of home.
To be sure, that's not a new discovery. Repeatedly studies of our major institutions - marriage, schools, police, churches, the communications media - trace their problems to difficulties in the home. And repeatedly we fail to recognize the import of these studies. Blind to the changes in our conception of home, we continue as though nothing has changed - continue, for example, to construct neighbor-alerting burglar alarms in areas where there is no longer any real community.
Perhaps the argument needs to be put another way: that nearly every aspect of our lives is touched and shaped by our inmost conception of home. But what, after all, is home? Even a glance at recent news articles suggests that that question is central to a broad range of issues. For example:
* Is home a refuge? Runaway children, fleeing intolerable conditions of neglect or abuse, number perhaps as many as 1.5 million nationwide.
* Is home a center for leisurely, conversational meals? Americans, eating out more, are also changing the way they eat meals at home - snacking on the run rather than sitting down to the table.
* Is home a place of relaxation? A story in today's Home and Family section (see Page 21) notes that women who work outside the home are still largely responsible for doing the housework - although they're searching for ways to share the burden with the family.
Even the economy is significantly shaped by our view of home. Between 1950 and 1980 - the same period charted by the two images cited above - the US economy created far more jobs than any other industrial economy in the world. Yet unemployment rose to record levels. Why? Because a flood of new job-seekers came into the market. These would-be employees came main-ly from three categories: 18-year-olds, immigrants, and women.Many of them, especially in the two latter groups, entered the job market because of changing attitudes toward home - an evolution which, in the case of the immigrants, affected the location of their homes, and which, in the case of many women, shifted their sense of identity as homemakers.
What are we to make of all these changes? The danger is not simply in the changes themselves - however disheartening some of them may be. More dangerous is our apparent unwillingness to recognize them at all - to assume a sense of community where there is none, to breeze on through the '80s with a '50s vision of home.
Then what is home? In his narrative poem ''The Death of the Hired Man,'' Robert Frost offers a pair of definitions, one false and one true. A farmer and his wife are discussing the meaning of the word - prompt-ed by the return, in his hour of need, of a farmhand they had once hired. The farmer's definition is gruff and bare: ''Home is the place where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in.'' His wife's response, eloquent in its affection, goes right to the heart of the matter: ''I should have called it/ Something you somehow haven't to deserve.''
Between these definitions, as between those winter images of home, lie worlds of difference. To him, home is grudging obligation; to her, it is natural birthright. To him it takes on all the dutiful impersonality of a social-service agency; to her it suggests all the charity and benevolence of motherhood.
She is right. Home is not something we resort to only in times of great need. It is not something we labor to deserve. Nor is it peripheral, somewhere to go when work and recreation are finished.
Home is central to our humanity, to our ability to progress as a nation of communities, to our sense of worth and our capacity for love. It is the umbrella idea under which the lesser concepts gather. Fix schools, and education will improve; cleanse the media, and ethics will be bolstered; adjust the economy, and incomes will stabilize. But clarify the sense of home - defend its values - and all these things will naturally find the shelter they need to thrive.